“I was riding in a car with one of the matrons of this small Delta town. I saw the rusted gate and several large stakes driven into the ground. It looked like a construction project that was halted a number of years ago – and it turned out this was a home McDowell was building for himself at the time he was killed.”
Klopfer said she asked the driver of the car, a woman she was interviewing at the time on what happened – who abandoned the construction, and why.
“She would not look me in the eyes, but said a ‘bad’ lawyer was murdered, and was building this house at the time. That caught my attention and I started asking people about the ‘bad’ lawyer, and soon I began to piece together his story.
“As it worked out, he was an important person who set several state records for African Americans. His short stay at the University of Mississippi was controversial – he was kicked out for carrying a gun in self-defense. He had been chased by students with guns back to his car, and even when driving home. Nothing happened to the white students, but McDowell was booted out. His law professor helped him get into a Texas law school where he finished, and returned to Mississippi to practice law.
When Klopfer approached the current dean of the law school, asking for the letter of recommendation that was written for McDowell back in 1963, she said he refused to hand it over.
“Several years later, I received a copy of the letter from an archivist at the school. She personally pulled it from law school files so that it would be saved from destruction.”
“McDowell went to Alabama and investigated his friend’s ‘suicide.’ He knew this man since they were children, and even influenced his decision to become a lawyer.
“When McDowell returned to his Delta home from Montgomery, he told a best friend this was not a suicide, but a murder – there were signs of torture. He also told this friend, he (McDowell) would be next.”
McDowell immediately quit practicing law in his office, and started a small church in Drew where he spent his last years. “His secretary told me that he stayed at the church most of the time, telling her how to proceed. She told me that on the day before he was killed, he wrote a lengthy resume that included all of his accomplishments.”
Klopfer personally believes that McDowell and his friend were very likely investigating the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Too many signs point in this direction. McDowell was a friend of King. He worked for the SCLC right out of law school, and on several occasions, Dr. King visited his office in the tiny town of Drew. After learning as much as I could about McDowell, I know that he was a dedicated and persevering man, who investigated many murders in the Delta, and would not have left King’s assassination alone.
“In an obituary appearing in a Lubbock, Texas newspaper – where I once worked as a journalist – it was reported that he was known for investigating civil rights crimes, with several other lawyers. Ironically, this information never made it into Mississippi newspapers, as far as I could tell.”
McDowell also had working papers in boxes and in his safe, stashed in his office from various investigations over the years, including the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago visitor to the Delta who was murdered in 1955.
“Those papers all disappeared following McDowell’s murder. All of his guns were removed from his office and home, too. Months later on, his entire office ‘caught’ on fire.”
A young man was arrested for McDowell’s murder, and remains in prison.
The autopsy leaves some real questions for Kloofer, “after learning how McDowell’s murder was described in court.
“Some pieces don’t fit the puzzle, and I believe that this murder is far more complex than what meets the eye. I never met McDowell, of course, because I did my research in 2004 and 2005. But every time I tried to interview family members and some friends or relatives about him, and about his murder, I ran into a brick wall.
“The person who did the autopsy was frequently questioned by his peers regarding his standards. And then, a host of crime scene questions have not been resolved–in fact, they need to be asked!”
Klopfer said her book, Who Killed Emmett Till, gives “relevant details that have never been resolved” about the murder.
Cleve McDowell’s story may be further complicated, “because he was gay (as were several major iconic civil rights figures, at the time) and he kept this secret quite well. This has made it more difficult to find his true friends, and often when I do, they usually won’t talk because they seem to be either afraid or embarrassed.”
The New Mexico author adds that “so little” is still reported and understood about the entire modern civil rights movement in Mississippi.
“This is a small piece of the big civil rights story, but I would really like to know more truth – for now, I really believe that the case of Cleve McDowell is not closed.”