By Patricia Older
POPLARVILLE — Fifty years ago, Poplarville, along with Pearl River County, was unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight involving the civil rights movement. It is an event, and time, most residents old enough to remember would like to forget happened. Even today, with 50 years in between the night of April 24, 1959, and this day, most people still refuse to discuss the kidnapping and murder of Mack Charles Parker, bring up the names of the people directly responsible for his death, or explore the ramifications that exploded from the incident. It was an incident so significant that it is infamously considered one of the last civil rights era lynching in America .
So significant, that the case is one of 100 civil rights era cold case files, 43 statewide, that has been re-opened by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “All 43 cases in this state, along with the rest of the 100 nationwide, are being actively investigated,” said FBI media representative Deborah Madden. “If we can determine if a federal violation occurred and if a suspect or suspects can be identified … we will file charges.”
If the agency determines that a federal violation did not occur, but that a state law was broken, such as murder, kidnapping, or assault, Mississippi officials from the state attorney general to local jurisdictions have promised their full cooperation, Madden said.
However, in 1959, cooperation was not Poplarville’s best attribute. Indeed, what was perhaps equally notable about the notoriety that Poplarville gained because of the lynching was in the attitudes that smoldered in the aftermath. Even though it was common knowledge in both the white and black neighborhoods who had participated in the kidnapping and murder of Parker, out of either a deep-lying fear or ignorant loyalty to those who perpetrated the crime, no one wanted to talk about it, admit they recognized any of the mob, or help the FBI in their investigation.
Within days of the lynching, the townspeople soon became resentful that their small place on the map had been thrust into the view of the entire nation. Residents resented the media attention, the presence of the dozens of FBI agents, and that anyone really cared that a black man in rural Mississippi in 1959 had not been afforded the right to a trial in a court of law.
After all, most reasoned at the time, whether through interviews or editorials, even though only circumstantial evidence loosely pointed to Parker as the perpetrator, he was judged guilty by most of raping the young, pregnant, white woman with her four-year-old daughter nearby.
It was that circumstantial evidence deemed factual, mixed with a deep-seated racism that a handful of local residents used to become judge, jury, and executioner 50 years ago. Seeing what only they wanted to see and hearing only what they wanted to hear, motivated the group of men to lynch Parker without the presumption of innocence or the right to a trial.
The group, hot with volatile emotions about not only the rape, but the possibility of a black lawyer questioning the white victim, or the good chance that even if Parker was convicted, the verdict could have been overturned due to a previous groundbreaking case, soon began to talk. They openly met to discuss their anger at Parker’s alleged actions, formed a viable plan, and eventually stormed the unmanned jail with begrudging help from a local jailer.
Once inside Parker’s unit, they dragged the young man from his jail cell and beat him so badly he left a trail of blood from the third floor cell, down the marble steps of the courthouse, and out to the curb where he was loaded into the back seat of a waiting car. From there he was driven to the Bogalusa bridge where, after one last, desperate attempt to flee his captors, he was shot in the heart, twice, at point-blank range. His weighted body was then thrown from the bridge into the spring-rain swollen waters of the Pearl River .
Mack Charles Parker was never given the presumption of innocence. In fact, now 50-years later, he is still presumed “more likely than not,” guilty by anyone willing to discuss his murder.
Parker, at 23, was in many ways, a typical young man his age. He had an unremarkable childhood, attended segregated schools, dropped out of high school, and did a two-year stint in the Army. He also had no criminal history and friends would later say they never heard anything from him that indicated he might have a propensity toward sexually assaulting someone.
Noted for being a reliable and hard worker, Parker, who lived in Lumberton, was supporting his mother and two younger siblings, plus a sister and her young child. Like many young adults then and now, Parker, along with his friends, liked to go out after cashing their paychecks and have a few beers. Like many men his age, he was not immune to bragging or saying inappropriate things, nor was he totally aware of how his actions or careless braggadocio could affect or impact his life.
Living in Poplarville in the late 50s was a laid-back sort of life for most. Even though the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to take shape across the nation, Poplarville remained rather isolated from world views and events. With a population of a couple of thousand, little had changed over the years. Although nearly half of the population lived below the poverty level, residents rarely moved away and fewer moved in. Quiet, country living where everyone seemed to migrate toward the center of town on Sunday after church services was the way of life for most. There was no doubt that just about everyone knew everyone else.
Buffered in some ways from raucous New Orleans by the muddy waters of the Pearl River and thousands of acres of pine groves, Poplarville and Pearl River County residents liked things as they were. Children minded their manners, adults addressed one another with informal titles such as Miss and Mr., and the blacks of the county knew where they were allowed, what they were allowed to do, and when to keep silent.
In spite of statements made by residents following Parker’s lynching that the Negroes, as blacks were politely called in that day, who lived in Poplarville were happy with their lives, the Negroes who lived here were all too aware of their status. Poverty was a given, and most were isolated on the east side of town, literally on the other side of the tracks. They had their own places of worship, their own grocery store, and their own cemetery.
As Anthony Hales, the county’s first black supervisor, explains, himself but three when Parker was lynched, when raised in poverty and isolated from the burgeoning world outside of southern Mississippi and the Civil Rights movement, “if you don’t know anything else, how can you know it is wrong.”
He said that growing up black in southern Mississippi was not the bed of roses professed by some people at the time. “You were taught to be afraid, you were taught early there were certain places you went and certain places you didn’t,” said Hales, adding that even when he was a teen working at a local department store, he was scolded for trying to help a white, female customer. “I was told never to do that again,” said Hales, admitting that he quit the job shortly afterwards. “They told me to just stay in the back.”
Hales said growing up in Poplarville in the wake of Parker’s lynching, the black community seemed to hunker down even more. “You could tell just the way people were acting, something had happened,” said Hales, noting that kids were kept closer to home and if they became rambunctious or acted up, they were reminded of what could happen to them. “It really was not talked about,” Hales said. “But we were reminded if we acted up that we better behave or else what happened to MC could happen to you.”
Even so, says Hales, one must also consider the time period before becoming too angry about the series of events. Mississippi, which leads the nation in the number of civil rights era lynchings, was struggling with the civil rights movement and the recent Brown versus The Board of Education decision to desegregate schools. “You must look at that time period,” says Hales. “How could someone in that time and place step out of their comfort zone and stick up for someone you have been taught was a second class citizen?”
Although Hales does not have any direct memories of the events surrounding Parker’s lynching, hundreds of pages of interviews conducted by the FBI, along with a book written in the 1980s by Howard Smead, “Blood Justice,” the events and the people involved are well-documented.
The beginning of the saga started on a rainy February night when a young family was heading home after visiting relatives in Lumberton. It was late at night and their car broke down on U.S. Highway 11 just south of the Pearl River County line.
The father had no alternative but to leave his wife, who was two months pregnant, and his four year old daughter, alone in the car as he walked to Lumberton to find a tow truck. As the father set out for help in the black night, lives would fatally cross paths and the beginning of Parker’s misfortune would start to weave into a web of bad timing, intimidation, racism, and murder.
After a night of drinking at local bars in Poplarville, Parker and his friends started for home. Parker had dressed for the night in decent clothes and was wearing a new, sporty hat belonging to one of his friends. That hat had been commented on by a local law official while the men had been playing cards at one of the bars they drank at.
Making their way north on U.S. Hwy. 11, Parker and his friends soon passed the stranded car. Parker, full of booze, partying, and youthful bravado, stopped in curiosity of possibly stealing the wheels, but when he shone his flashlight into the window of the car, he saw the young woman and her sleeping daughter crouched fearfully against the passenger side door. Parker returned to his car and left.
Soon the men passed the father as he walked alongside the roadway in the dark, and Parker reportedly made a comment to his friends about going back and having his way with the woman. As each implored him to not go back, Parker dropped each of his friends off at their respective homes, stopping at his to supposedly pick up a plastic cap gun, and then headed back into the night. He is also said to have cut his hand and wrapped it in a rag.
Sometime that night, a black man wearing a shapeless, brimless, dirty hat, stopped by the stranded car and held a gun to the window, threatening the woman if she did not open the door, he would kill her and her daughter. The man, later described by the victim as in his late 30s to 40s, greasy, and gruff, supposedly broke the window with the gun and stuck his hand through the vent window to open the door.
He then forced the woman and her daughter into his car where he drove to an isolated spot, put the young girl, crying, out behind his vehicle, and then raped the woman. He, too, was said to have a bandaged hand. He then left the pair in the woods and drove away.
The plastic cap pistol found later at Parker’s residence, was said to have been too fragile to beat against a car window, much less damage it. Even the victim repeatedly said she did not know if Parker was the man who raped her, only saying he was the man after he was put in a line up, bloodied and bruised from a beating, and forced to scream the threats the man made to the woman that night. Incredibly, both she and her husband were soon ostracized as well over their repeated refusal to condone the lynching.
From the very beginning, Parker denied his involvement and steadfastly professed his innocence. It was learned after his death that he even passed not one, but several lie detector tests concerning his involvement. He was still arrested, charged and indicted and the test results were not revealed until years after his murder.
As his trial date of April 27 approached, emotions ran high in Pearl River County. Men openly met at area homes in McNeill, Gumpond, and Poplarville and discussed the Parker case. Plans were made of how to get into the jail, what vehicles best suited their plans, and where different people would meet before, during, and after the lynching.
When they decided they had to act before the case went to trial, the men dragged Parker from his jail cell on Friday night, April 24, beating him with broom sticks, fists, and anything within reach, eventually dragging him from the third floor jail cell as he screamed for his life. Screaming so loud, a nurse at the hospital directly behind the jail called the local restaurant, the Star Cafe, just a few hundred yards south of the jail, which the night marshal was known to patronize, and left a message to get to the jail as soon as possible, that something terrible was happening.
The marshal took his time, going first to awaken another officer of the law, and then taking a longer route than they normally would have used, stopping for coffee at a café they rarely patronized, finally making their way to the courthouse. By then, the mob, with Parker as their captive, were gone.
Parker, fighting for his life, had been shoved into the back seat of a borrowed Oldsmobile and was driven down Mississippi Highway 26 toward Louisiana. What he endured in the back seat of that car is not known, but it is known the owner tried to clean the blood-stained upholstery in the days that followed. Parker died just a short time later on the bridge that spans the Pearl River just outside of Bogalusa . His weighted body would not be found for days. Pictures of Parker’s bloated body just pulled from the muddy river can be found on the Internet.
In spite of hundreds of pages of FBI files where the men involved are clearly identified, and their meetings documented, and admissions of complicity verified, no one was ever charged, no one was ever indicted, no one ever was convicted of Parker’s murder in spite of two attempts at indictments, both at the local level and later at the state level.
FBI spokesman Madden, noting that she is not allowed to talk about any of the individual cases, said that the FBI depends on cooperation from the public to bring these cold cases, such as Parker’s, to justice. “We are very dependent on the public’s cooperation,” Madden said, adding that over the years most local records have been either destroyed, lost, or misplaced, adding to the difficulty of prosecuting the cold case files. “Record keeping could have been splotchy,” said Madden. “And as a result we are missing some local information because of the passage of time.”
Adding that sometimes what appears to be totally insignificant to someone who might have heard something or seen something, could be the small piece of evidence that turns the case around. “It may be these little things that break the case,” said Madden. “We’d like for anyone to feel free to come forward,” she said, adding that the Jackson office has staff available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to take calls. “If they want, the information can be totally confidential,” said Madden. “We want to place them in a place of confidence.”
In the end, that tiny piece of information can take Poplarville and Pearl River County from being infamous for such a brutal crime 50 years ago to one that insists justice be done.
Anyone with a tip or possible lead for the FBI in any of the civil rights era cold case files, is asked to call the Jackson office at 601-948-5000. A list of the cases can be found at http://jackson.fbi.gov/presrel/2009/civilrights021209.htm