Justice In The Segregated South: A New Look At An Old Killing
This story contains language that some may find offensive.
In the segregated South in 1965, John Queen was about as insignificant as a man could be. He was black, elderly and paralyzed. His legs had been crushed when as a boy he fell off a roof. For the rest of his life, he pulled himself around with his hands.
In Fayette, Miss., he would shine shoes on Main Street for a few coins. People called him "Crippled Johnny" or "Shoe-Shine Johnny."
"He didn't have legs, so he walked like a rabbit," says Lillie Lee Henderson, Queen's great-niece. She remembers how her uncle used two wooden shoeshine boxes to push and pull himself along the pavement. "He would put his arm through the handles of the shoeshine boxes and then swing his body forward. That's how he moved. Like you would see a bunny rabbit hop."
When Queen was killed on Aug. 8 at the age of 65, it took just minutes for authorities to decide that he was the aggressor. That he shot first. And that the white man fired in self-defense.
But in 2007, the Queen case was put on an FBI list of what it called unsolved "racially motivated killings from the civil rights era." In February of that year, FBI Director Robert Mueller stood at a microphone with officials from major civil rights groups and announced that his agents would begin investigating about 100 such cases.
Today, the Queen case is one of just 27 cases that the FBI calls open. The vast majority of the 112 cases in the FBI's Cold Case Initiative have been closed without prosecution. Only two were successfully prosecuted.
Documents obtained by NPR via a Freedom of Information Act request show that the FBI began its active investigation into the Queen case in late 2008, but it stalled because agents found only two witnesses: the man who shot Queen and the man's sister.
The Search For Witnesses
NPR — working with Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., who has written about the region's civil rights era violence — found several new witnesses who have never told their stories to the FBI. Their versions are often contradictory, however. There was little investigation by local authorities in 1965, and no evidence was saved.
As a result, NPR's investigation can't say with certainty how Queen died. This is a story about how justice worked — or didn't work — in a segregated world from the not-so-distant past.
Adam Lee with the FBI's Civil Rights Section says officials cannot talk about details of the case because it's still open. In a prepared statement, Lee says:
"We realize that the dearth of living witnesses and Queen's obvious physical disabilities invites speculation and suspicion as to the circumstances of his death. However, FBI investigations are driven by facts and evidence, not suspicions and speculation. While we have not yet closed this tragic case and thus cannot comment on the specifics of the investigation, we currently lack sufficient evidence to conclusively disprove the subject's claim of self-defense. The FBI will consider any additional evidence concerning this matter from a credible source."
The one thing the new witnesses found by NPR agree upon is that Queen was shot and killed after he cursed in front of a white man.
Martha Wallace, who was then 18, says she was standing just a few feet away and heard the argument. "All I remember: I heard the word 's- - -' or 'damn,' or something like that. And I know the man said, 'Don't talk like that in front of my wife and daughter.' And John, you know, John had kind of a big mouth. John said, 'I can say s- - - whenever I get ready.' And that was it. And the next thing I heard was a shot."
It happened at the ice house on Main Street. A warehouse is there now, but back in 1965, the ice house was a place where people without electricity came to buy blocks of ice to keep their food cool.
On a steamy summer afternoon, people would hang out on its porch where cold air wafted from the ice-making machines.
Wallace and her sister, Hilda Johnson, who was then 12 , remember the dark sedan that drove up and the driver who got out — a white man with dark hair.
Jasper Burchfield was a part-time elected constable. He was off duty at the time he was driving north on Highway 61 to the Mississippi Delta with his family, including his mother and young sister. He was from the next county over, so he didn't know that Queen was a town character who was sometimes friendly, sometimes surly and would sometimes be drinking. And Burchfield didn't know that in Fayette, it was a kind of a sport to get Queen riled up because Queen could go off on one of his famous cursing streaks.
So when Burchfield drove up to get ice, Queen was hanging out with a few other men, laughing and joking. His voice was loud enough for Burchfield to hear him curse. Burchfield told him to stop, and Queen cursed again.
And that, as Johnson recalls, broke all the rules: "Back in them days, you know ... you had to watch what you say."
In August 1965, the civil rights movement was changing the country. Just two days before Queen was shot, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Still, in Jefferson County, where Fayette is located, blacks outnumbered whites 3 to 1. But only one black person was registered to vote, according to a report by the U.S. Justice Department.
A black man still stepped off the sidewalk when a white person approached and always let a white customer go to the head of the line at the grocery store. If a letter to someone black was addressed to "Mr. and Mrs.," the postmaster took a pencil and crossed out that title.
What happened after Queen cursed is what is in dispute. Who had a gun? Was there more than one shot? Who pulled the trigger first?
This matters in this case because the Justice Department could still prosecute under civil rights law after all these years, but only if it could be shown that a law enforcement officer shot a defenseless paraplegic black man.
Walace and Johnson were sitting in different parts of the ice house. "I just really heard one shot," says Wallace. "Really like a firecracker to me." Then, she says, she saw Queen dead, his red blood running with the ice water.
Another witness, Melissa Martin Wright, also remembers hearing a single shot. She was a few weeks shy of her eighth birthday and was walking directly across the street from the ice house.
"I just remember hearing a boom and turning and seeing someone tumble. ... It was a black man and he was crippled," she says. "It was like, 'Oh, what's wrong with him?' and then it was like, 'Oh my gosh, he was shot.' So I just ran."
Wright didn't see who had a gun; nor did Wallace and Johnson.
But here's where things get murky. NPR also found witnesses who say Queen had a gun, too.
"It was an old revolver of some type," says Charles Dawkins, who says he drove up to the ice house with his cousin just after the shooting.
Dawkins is one of four new witnesses, black and white, who arrived moments after the shooting and saw Queen with a gun in his hand. "He was laying on his back out there with his arm out with a pistol in his hand," says Iamon Dawkins. "Hell, it looked like he could shoot it. But he, of course, was dead."
The Rev. Percy Turner, one of Queen's friends, says Queen once showed him how he kept a small old pistol for protection in one of his wood shoeshine boxes.
There are also witnesses who say they heard what sounded like multiple shots. Others say that a bullet hit the house across the street. It was Queen who was facing the house. Iamon Dawkins remembers the owner of that house, a local car dealer, making a fuss about the bullet that hit the wires to his television.
That man is no longer living, but his daughter remembers her parents talking about a bullet shot through the front of the house. She wasn't living there then, and she says she doesn't remember if it had anything to do with Queen's shooting.
Still, even if both Queen and Burchfield had guns, we can't know for sure who pulled a gun first. No one roped off the ice house or recovered the bullet (or bullets). There was no autopsy of Queen's body to confirm how many times he had been shot.
Instead, the story that was quickly accepted as the official truth was Burchfield's: that Queen shot first and Burchfield shot back in self-defense.
Tom Harper, who lived a block away from the ice house, recalls hearing what sounded like multiple gunshots. He says he jumped up from his parents' dinner table and ran past the Methodist church, the propane gas company, the newspaper office; he crossed Mead Street and ran past the gas station.
At the ice house, he saw Queen dead on the ground with a small, old pistol in his hand. And nearby, he saw Burchfield standing by his car.
"He was not as excited or as nervous as you might expect somebody to be that had just killed somebody," Harper remembers. "He was just, matter-of-fact, this is what happened."
Harper says Burchfield was eager to tell his version. He and other witnesses recall that Burchfield said Queen was on the ice house porch, about four feet off the ground, and that Burchfield was at street level. Burchfield was just 6 to 10 feet away when Queen fired his gun. But Burchfield ducked and Queen's bullet whistled past his head. Harper recalls how Burchfield described how he then reached into his car for his service revolver and fired, hitting Queen at the waist.
In Burchfield's account, Queen slumped over, then rose suddenly and aimed his pistol again. So Burchfield fired and hit Queen again.
"Johnny was still trying to aim his revolver at Burchfield, and that's when Burchfield fired the third shot that went right in the center of Johnny's forehead. And that was the fatal blow," Harper remembers Burchfield saying.
Wallace, who saw the argument, had run from the ice house, but as people in town rushed to the scene, she followed them back. She remembers seeing Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Robert Pritchard drive up and shake Burchfield's hand in what she described as a friendly manner.
"I don't think if I had shot you, he would of came in and shook my hand, do you? I mean, I really don't," she says.
In Burchfield's Words
NPR went searching for Burchfield to ask him about the day he shot and killed Queen.
Driving down a long gravel road toward a newly built wood house with a long front porch in Mississippi were two NPR journalists — myself and producer Amy Walters — along with Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel.
These days Burchfield runs a business cleaning out septic tanks. A couple of his white pumper trucks are parked in the yard.
Burchfield answers the door dressed in stained khaki work clothes. He becomes angry when asked about the Queen shooting. "You ain't gonna talk to me about no s- - - like that," he says. But instead of going back inside his house, he leans against his door frame and continues yelling.
"I figure it ain't none of your damn business. Now that's how I feel about it," he says. "I'm 83 god- - - - years old. And I work every day, except Sundays. ... If you all can't do something beside pick on people like that, I'd quit if I was you. I'd find me something else to do."
Burchfield went from angry to ornery, but after more than an hour of prodding, he became friendly.
He tells personal stories — about being an Army machine gunner in the Korean War, where he hated the death he saw and how it haunted him after coming home.
"It takes a while to get over it. You jump at anything," he says.
He talks about his mean and quick-to-fight father, who he says taught him to be honest. And he talks about surviving cancer — the melanoma that left his face pockmarked and disfigured.
Burchfield, who is now 84, then tells the same version he's told over the years of what happened the day he drove his family in his Buick to the ice house in Fayette: Queen was the first to pull a gun and shoot, so he got his own gun from his car and fired back. "I tell you, if I hadn't of shot him," he says, "he would of killed my momma and daddy and probably my little sister."
Delores Mullins, Burchfield's sister, supports her brother's story only to a point. She was 14 then and in the back seat of the car. NPR obtained an FBI agent's notes and the write-up of two interviews with her.
In 2009, after the FBI reopened the case, she told the agents that Queen pulled his gun first. But then — contradicting her brother — she said Queen never got off a shot because his gun jammed.
The FBI then asked her to take a lie detector test. She refused on the advice of her attorney. That's where the FBI paused its investigation. She declined to speak to NPR. Family members said her health is too fragile for her to be interviewed.
The Coroner's Jury
A little more than an hour after Queen was shot, Pritchard, the deputy sheriff, told County Coroner R.A. "Sonny Boy" Cupit to gather six respected men in the community to form a coroner's jury to rule on how Queen died. That was standard practice.
All of the members of the coroner's jury are dead now, except for Elmo Gabbert, who was a young doctor in 1965.
Gabbert remembers the coroner's jury met at the ice house and that the sheriff presented one piece of physical evidence: Queen's old revolver. "I remember vividly the gun, what it looked like to this day," he says. "It was silver-plated. It had a black handle. And I remember that it was loaded."
Outside the ice house, Queen's family and other black residents waited for the decision of the coroner's jury.
Henderson, Queen's great-niece, remembers that after about 20 minutes, the sheriff came out and said it was over and told everyone to go home.
"Everybody come away from the ice house upset," she recalls, "because the inquest ruled that it was Uncle John's fault and that this man had shot in self-defense."
The report from the coroner's inquest is the one existing court record. NPR found it in the dusty basement of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
It is one sentence long: "Johnny Queen, came to his death by reason to-wit: Four gunshot wounds (.38 S & W special pistol) fired by J.W. Burchfield, in our opinions, in self-defense."
A preliminary hearing before the justice of the peace reached the same conclusion the next morning. That hearing was so short that by the time an FBI agent arrived — he was driving from Natchez, a half-hour away — it was over.
Two local newspaper articles and a report to the State Highway Patrol quote the sheriff's version of things. They note that two black employees of the ice house testified, but there's no reporting on what they said.
Queen was buried the next day, but even though the FBI had already deployed scores of agents to stop racial violence in Mississippi by 1965, NPR found documents that show the FBI did not open an investigation that year.
Inside The FBI Files
The Queen incident was not the first time Burchfield had been questioned by the FBI. Just six months before Queen's death, an FBI agent knocked on Burchfield's door. It was Feb. 9 and the agent was there because a police informant had identified Burchfield as a suspected member of the violent White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Around Natchez, Miss., the Ku Klux Klan had been terrorizing black communities with beatings, bombings and killings.
Burchfield responded angrily, according to the FBI agent's report. "Burchfield spoke in a very derogatory manner of what he referred to as the 'Nigger situation,' and talked at length about the manner in which the quote 'Jews' were handling the United States, and the effect they have had on the American dollar and the American economy," says the report, which was among about 300 pages of documents NPR received from the FBI via a Freedom of Information Act request filed about the Queen case.
In the interview with NPR, Burchfield denies ever being a member of the Ku Klux Klan or attending any Klan meetings. "I never been in nothing like that," he says. "I ain't never been in no Ku Klux Klan."
Information inside FBI files contradicts Burchfield. In the 1960s, an informant told the Adams County Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol that Burchfield was a Klansman. Those reports were sent to the FBI. The informant was a Klansman who was also Burchfield's neighbor. He said it's possible Burchfield may have quit once he was elected constable, which was shortly before he shot Queen.
NPR found these files in documents requested from the FBI. More documents were found at the National Archives in the files of a congressional investigative committee.
In February 1966, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, best known for its investigations of people and groups suspected of having ties to the Communist Party, released a list naming dozens of Ku Klux Klan leaders and members. Burchfield's name was on that list, which was published in newspapers in Mississippi and around the country.
Burchfield worked by day at the International Paper plant in Natchez and at night as the constable in nearby Fenwick. In one document in the FBI files, the Adams County Sheriff's Department — the county around Natchez — names Burchfield as a suspected member of a gang of hooded men who, at night, were abducting and whipping black men.
In one incident, the sheriff's office considered Burchfield a top suspect. One of the masked men brandished a distinctive pistol with a long barrel, and a sheriff's deputy said it resembled a similar weapon that belonged to Burchfield. No arrests were ever made in that case.
Today, Burchfield says he has never heard of the victim nor was he involved in beating him up or hurting any other black man. "Why I gonna do something like that?" Burchfield asks. "I never done nothing like that in my life. I get along with blacks myself. I never had no trouble with no blacks. Not a one."
Still, by the time Burchfield shot and killed Queen in Fayette, his name was already in the files of the local sheriff, the state police and the FBI as a suspected member of the KKK. There was no indication that police in Fayette knew or followed up on that fact.
The Decision Not To Investigate For 43 Years
The morning after Queen was shot, Billy Bob Williams, the agent in the FBI's new office in Natchez, drove to Fayette.
Williams says he spoke to Pritchard, the deputy sheriff, who explained that this was not a racially motivated shooting. Williams trusted Pritchard and concluded that the shooting wasn't the kind of case the FBI was interested in. It wasn't a planned and organized killing by the Klan.
"It just seemed to be that this was a confrontation between two men," says Williams, who is retired and now lives in Oregon.
It took another 43 years before the FBI opened the Queen case as part of its initiative to investigate so-called "racially motivated" unsolved killings from the civil rights era.
So in 2009, FBI agents once again knocked on Burchfield's door. Burchfield repeated the story that he had shot Queen in self-defense.
Henderson, Queen's great-nieces, remembers the shooting as a pivotal moment for black residents of Fayette. "The black citizens in Jefferson County had reached a peak," she says. "That old cliche: I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."
The death of her great-uncle — and the inability to say anything about it --sparked that change, she says.
"The killing of John Queen was an in-your-face situation right on Main Street on a Sunday afternoon," Henderson says. "This wasn't behind the door. The Klan didn't have sheets over their face. This was a white man who killed a paraplegic black man. He killed him on Main Street."
Less than three weeks after Queen's death, the leader of the NAACP in nearby Natchez turned the ignition key in his Chevrolet and a bomb blew up. George Metcalfe was severely injured in the blast.
Charles Evers was then the NAACP's top official in Mississippi — a job he had taken over after the assassination of his brother, Medgar Evers.
Evers began organizing protests in Natchez, and on the way from his home in Jackson to Natchez, he drove Highway 61 through Fayette, right past the spot where Queen died.
"And I found out that Fayette was predominantly Negro," Evers recalls. So he started registering black residents to vote.
When Queen died in August 1965, it was too risky for black people to complain about it. But Evers challenged all that. In December, just four months later, he led hundreds in protest marches to demand jobs and the right to vote, and for basic respect — to be called Mr. and Mrs, not boy or girl, anymore.
"I went in there, wasn't afraid of white people," says Evers, who was known for his fearlessness and titled a memoir Have No Fear. "I went in there cussing 'em and calling 'em all kind of names. And they couldn't believe that."
It's an ironic twist given that Queen died after an argument that started when the black man cursed in front of a white constable.
Two years later in 1967, Fayette elected Early Lott Sr. as its first black constable. He was one of four black officials elected in Jefferson County and among 22 African-Americans elected that year to public office around the state, the first blacks elected since Reconstruction.
Lott told Phyllis Garland, a reporter for Ebony magazine, that Queen's death inspired him to run for office. The World War II veteran described seeing Queen's blood running on Main Street.
"It was then, when I saw that, I decided that if the time ever came when I'd have a chance to try and change things, I'd do it. That cripple had been killed because he felt the way I felt. He'd only tried to speak up for himself like a man," he said.
By 1969, Evers was elected mayor. Federal money and private money from the North flowed to Fayette. But the hope and prosperity didn't last, and today Fayette is again one of the nation's poorest places.
On a Sunday afternoon last year, Shirley Cruel's family — her daughter, a grandson and several nieces and nephews — came to see her at a nursing home on Main Street in Fayette. She's another of Queen's great-nieces.
In 1965, she was a high school dropout and unmarried mother. When things changed in Fayette, she got her GED, went to college and became a social worker.
"He was just a black man in the '60s," she says about her uncle. "And who cared about a black man in the '60s? No justice was given to him."
As Cruel talks, her 18-year-old grandson, Alvion Sampson, sits nearby listening, with a look of astonishment on his face.
He's never heard of Queen, his relative who died just a few blocks up the street.
"At my old school, we did Mississippi history and we read about Medgar Evers and then read about Emmitt Till," he says. But he had never heard about his family's history. "This is the first time I ever heard about it. The first time."
His grandmother says it was time for her grandson, for Mississippi and for the world to know about what happened to Queen.
Shortly after this interview, Cruel died.
That's one reason why civil rights advocates say it's important to know about these killings from the civil rights era. After 50 years, relatives, witnesses — and suspects — are dying. That makes it hard to get to the truth in these cases, but also easy to forget them.
NPR researcher Barbara Van Woerkom contributed to this story. Additional reporting was provided by Stanley Nelson of the Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La. Read more of Nelson's reporting on the John Queen case here.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.