Civil Rights Author Releases Autopsy of Mississippi Lawyer; Death of Cleve McDowell ‘Still a Mystery’

For Immediate Release
Susan Klopfer
Civil Rights Author, Speaker
Mississippi Civil Rights Author Releases Autopsy of Delta Lawyer Murdered in 1997; Report Found in Sunflower County Courthouse Basement ‘Leaves Open Questions About What Really Happened to Cleve McDowell’
(Gallup, NM) – A controversial autopsy of a civil rights lawyer murdered in 1997 has been placed on the Internet “for the public to see” by the author of three Mississippi civil rights history books and eBooks.

“I still think about Cleve McDowell, how brave he was and how he remains a forgotten civil rights hero. And I believe his murder should be reinvestigated,” Klopfer said today, after placing the 29-page report on a civil rights blog, 

Klopfer, a graduate of Hanover College, is the author of Who Killed Emmett Till, The Emmett Till Story, and Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited. She is a former acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall, and has won journalism awards in Branson, Missouri for her investigative work.

The story of Cleve McDowell, a small-town civil rights leader who investigated the murder of Emmett Till and so many others killed in the civil rights movement has been “pretty much” forgotten, Klopfer said.

“Go to Mississippi’s state civil rights library that houses civil rights reports and books, and ask for something on McDowell. Most likely, you will get a blank stare. The state has forgotten this man – the first African American to be admitted to the University of Mississippi’s law school – and a cohort of James Meredith and Medger Evers.”

McDowell a ‘Bad’ Lawyer, Delta Matron Claims

Klopfer said she learned of McDowell only because she asked a simple question about a gate protecting an unfinished home on the outskirts of Drew, Miss., where McDowell was born and later murdered.

“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’s attorney friend ‘commits suicide’ in Alabama

Klopfer became further intrigued with the story, when learning that another black lawyer, McDowell’s protégé and investigative partner, was killed in Alabama (“committed suicide”) several years before McDowell was murdered.

“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. 

Finds Clue in Lubbock, Texas Newspaper

“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.

Autopsy Leaves Questions

“In court records that I found in the basement of the Sunflower County Courthouse, I learned that this young man tried to commit suicide while in jail, and that after confessing, he later claimed he did not kill McDowell, that he admitted guilt because he was threatened he would be charged with a capital crime if he did not plead guilty.”

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.”

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