PELAHATCHIE, Miss. — On a late-fall evening 46 years ago, gunfire shattered the revelry at a nameless juke joint in this rural crossroads. When the smoke cleared, Joseph Robert McNair, a Black father of six, lay at the feet of the community’s white constable.
That McNair was dead, and that Luther Steverson had killed him are about the only details on which folks around here agree.
Five months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice — which has been looking into scores of civil rights-era deaths — closed a reinvestigation of McNair’s shooting and informed family members that there was nothing to prosecute. But The Associated Press has found a number of people whose eyewitness accounts conflict with the official finding that Steverson fired just once in self-defense.
In response, the FBI made some more inquiries, but the agency insists that the witness accounts it has are “irreconcilably inconsistent,” and that the case remains unprosecutable. Local authorities, saying they trust the bureau’s judgment, consider the case closed.
But it’s far from solved, say others, including McNair’s three surviving children.
In their minds, crucial questions — such as exactly where McNair was hit, and by how many bullets — remain unresolved. The only way to reconcile the conflicting stories, they agree, would be to exhume the body.
“I would like to know,” says Patsy Morrow-Whitfield, who was just 10 when neighbors led her and her siblings to the field where her stepfather lay. Still, she added, “It’s almost moot to me. Because the people that would get the great satisfaction out of this, other than my brother there and me and my sister, has already passed.”
The dispute over McNair’s death illustrates the challenges — and high stakes — of seeking the truth so long after the fact.
McNair’s was one of 124 civil rights-era deaths that the Justice Department has reviewed since launching its “Cold Case Initiative” in 2006. Congress turned up the heat in 2007 with the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, setting aside millions of dollars “to ensure timely and thorough investigations in the cases involved.”
His case was among more than six dozen the Southern Poverty Law Center referred to the DOJ in Febrary 2007.
Steverson shot McNair on Nov. 6, 1965, as he said he was attempting to serve a warrant on the 27-year-old laborer for nonsupport of his and his wife Myrtle’s six children.
In a recent phone interview, the 84-year-old Steverson, who lives in nearby Pearl, told the AP that he had driven out to Pelahatchie — about 20 miles east of the state capital of Jackson — with town Marshal Cooper Stingley and Night Marshal Pat Wade to serve his warrant. He said he was riding in the back seat, the warrant in his shirt pocket and his .38-caliber service revolver in its holster on the seat beside him, when they came across McNair at the juke joint off Highway 80.
“I jumped out,” the former constable said. “And I didn’t have time to grab my regular service gun.”
Steverson said he pulled out his “safety piece” — a two-shot, .22 Magnum derringer — and ran after McNair. When he caught up with him in a field of waist-high grass, he said, McNair wheeled and knocked him down.
“He said, ‘You’ve tried to kill me. I’m going to kill you,’” Steverson said. “And he started down on me. It looked like he had a knife. Of course, I was laying on my back trying to get up, had the gun in my hand and I shot him.”
He said the bullet struck McNair square in the chest.
“It blowed him backwards,” Steverson said.
He and the others searched for a knife, he said, but never found one.
Soon afterward, Steverson was cleared in a hearing before a justice of the peace.
In late May of this year, the case became one of about 80 officially closed by the Justice Department following reconsideration.