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1959 race, killing Mississippi teen could get fresh look

CORINTH, Miss. – Eberlene King recalls that her 15-year-old brother as he lay dying, after white teenagers cruised through their black neighborhood in a pick-up on Halloween night 1959, and shot him in the face.

“His eyes … were hanging out,” King recalled. “His head was full of pellets.”

William Roy Prather died the following morning in their hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, a few miles south of the Tennessee line.

Eight white teenagers were charged with murder, but only one was convicted. Jerry Darnell Glidewell, 16, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January 1960 and served less than a year in captivity. Six of the seven people in the truck got a year’s probation by the juvenile court, and an 18-year-old walked free.

The black teenager dead has never drawn a lot of attention, even if the federal and state governments in the past 15 years have re-opened investigations of racially-motivated murder of the civil rights era.

Now, the U.S. Department of Justice says that it is intended Prather is the kill of the state of Mississippi “for possible prosecution.” The Associated Press dug into the case, to disclose information not previously reported, including details about the Department of Justice investigation and the AP-interviews with the King and Glidewell.

It is unclear whether a prosecutor will pursue against each of aging defendant in a decades-old case where witnesses’ memories may fade and some pieces of the evidence, including the truck and the shotgun are gone.

The case is briefly mentioned in a report of the department tabled in March, the same who said that the department is the revival of its investigation of the brutal 1955 killing of another black teenager in Mississippi, Emmett Till.

“Although the prosecution of a number of the topics may be barred by double jeopardy and other subjects have died, the Department referred the matter to the state of Mississippi to determine whether a state prosecution might be appropriate,” the Department of Justice, said of the Prather case.

The public prosecutor in whose territory encompasses Corinth, District Attorney John Weddle, do not return multiple calls seeking comment.

King said FBI agents knocked on her door a few years ago and hand-delivered in a letter from the Ministry of Justice. The letter said that there was no federal charges could be brought in the killing of her brother, based on the laws that exist in 1959. He said: “the only possible prosecution” would be for the state to unspecified charges against a suspect who was 18 at the time of the crime.

Corinth — pronounced coh-RINTH by the locals — is home to about 14,600 people, 70 percent of them are white and 24 percent black.

In the city, once besieged during the civil war, schools, and neighborhoods remained segregated through the 1960s. While some black residents recall fear and violence, others say that the city was quiet, as long as everyone, in the language of the times, “reminded of their place.”

The 1950s and ’60s saw the racial strife in the South, as whites resisted racial integration. Prather the murder came four years after the brutal murder galvanized the civil rights movement and three years before the violence erupted about 80 miles (129 kilometers southwest of Corinth at the University of Mississippi when the first black student enrolled.

A Southern soldier still statue stands sentinel outside the court on to Corinth’s town square.

In the courthouse, an old handwritten records show that on Jan. 26, 1960, Glidewell pled guilty to manslaughter: “Ordered to serve 5 years. in the Prison, the last 4 years. of which, suspended on good behavior.”

Glidewell, who goes by his middle name, Darnell, now lives out of a hilly country road north of Corinth. He took the phone on a recent morning, and a reporter from Associated Press asked about Prather kill.

“They pay me with that, yes,” said Glidewell, now in his mid-70s.

As to what happened that Halloween night, he said: “I would rather not talk to you on the phone.”

But Glidewell answer a few questions. He said that investigators spoke with him about the matter of a few years ago, and said: “‘Don’t worry about it.'”

“It’s all over, you know?” Glidewell said. “But I am not heard more of. … That is more than 50 years ago.”

Glidewell said: “four or five” of the people with him that night are still alive. “I don’t know where they live now,” he said. “I don’t ever see.”

Their names do not appear in court records in the near Glidewell’s, but they are listed in the Ministry of Justice, letter.

After the phone conversation, an AP reporter and a photographer drove to Glidewell the house and knocked on the door. His wife said that he had liver cancer, his memory failed and he would not talk.

The Ministry of Justice, the letter says that on the basis of the researchers’ interviews with witnesses, a group of white teenagers drove through a black neighborhood of Corinth on the night of Halloween 1959. Black witnesses said they saw the white teenagers throwing fireworks at the black teenagers, and a number of black youths threw stones and rocks at the truck. The researchers told the white teenagers got a shotgun and shells from the house of one person in the group, then back to the black part of the city, where Glidewell shot Prather.

“Glidewell reported to police that before he fired the shotgun a few of the topics that said,” There they are, shoot,'” the Ministry of Justice, the letter said.

News from the time said Prather was not among those that had thrown rocks or bricks on the truck.

“Although Glidewell and a number of the subjects who claimed that Glidewell had shot straight up in the air, the autopsy report indicated that Glidewell had aimed the shotgun death-straight at your brother’s face,” the Ministry of Justice, the letter said.

King, now 73, said her older brother was “a real quiet person” who had helped his friends clean up a church on the night of Halloween.

“He didn’t deserve what happened to him. … Well, no one deserves that,” King said in a telephone interview from her home near Atlanta. “He would just go to school, then go back and do his chores in the house.”

The Ministry of Justice, the letter says the white grand jury that indicted Glidewell recommended treated with “leniency.” The grand jury recommended that six of the remaining white teenagers have their cases sent to the juvenile court, and that an 18-year-old in the group, his case was sent to a July 1960 grand jury; the researchers found no evidence that an indictment against him.

A judge has the younger teens to the test and brought them out of that by March 1961, writing that “every’would be a good citizen,'” according to the Ministry of Justice, letter.

Johnnie Sue Johnson, a cousin of Prather, lived in the vicinity of the funeral home and went to his body; she was 13. She said his face was swollen from the shot. “He looked like he was 90-something years old,” Johnson said from her home in Champaign, Illinois. “It was just terrible.”

One of Johnson’s cousins, Gennella Graham, was born in 1975 and grew up in Corinth, but had never heard of Prather’s death until the summer of 2017, when she took a course at Tougaloo College in Jackson and was assigned to write about her hometown’s “hidden history.” Graham, who teaches English at Corinth high School, was given Prather’s name and called her aunt. Johnson told her about the murder and about their relationship to Prather. Johnson also told her that Prather, the friend who was with him that night, Lavelle Powell, survived, but lost hearing in one ear, because of the shooting. Powell later moved away from the Mississippi, and he died a few years ago.

Graham wrote a poem about Prather, who says, in part:

“Write that I,

“Wanted to fight,

“Wild life,

“But no one asked what I thought,

“What I wanted to.”

This school year, Graham will teach her 11th grade students about William Roy Prather.

“I know, he just lived 15 years on this earth. But I would like to know — what was he interested in? He Had a girlfriend? … He Had a job somewhere? Where he went to church?” Graham said. “I just want to know that he was important. When you die, that is not the end of your story.”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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This story has been corrected to show that Gennella Graham was born in 1975, not 1974.

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