Mississippi could re-examine 1959 racial killing of teenager

Published 2:43 pm Tuesday, August 21, 2018

CORINTH, Miss. (AP) — Eberlene King remembers her 15-year-old brother as he lay dying, after white teenagers cruised through their black neighborhood in a pickup 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 next morning in their hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, near the Tennessee line.

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Eight white teens were charged with murder. Jerry Darnell Glidewell, then 16, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in January 1960 and served less than a year in state prison. Six of the seven others in the truck got a year’s probation through youth court, and an 18-year-old walked free.

The case has never drawn much attention, even as federal and state authorities in the past 15 years have re-opened investigations of racially motivated killings from the civil rights era.

Now, the U.S. Justice Department says it has referred Prather’s killing to the state of Mississippi “for potential prosecution.” The Associated Press dug into the case to reveal information not previously reported, including details about the Justice Department’s investigation and AP interviews with King and Glidewell.

It’s unclear whether a district attorney will pursue charges in a case where witnesses’ memories may be fading and some evidence, including the truck and the shotgun, has disappeared.

The case is mentioned in a report the department filed in March — the same one that said the department is reviving its investigation into the 1955 killing of another black teenager in Mississippi, Emmett Till.

“Although prosecution of some of the subjects may be barred by double jeopardy and other subjects are deceased, the Department referred the matter to the state of Mississippi to determine whether any state prosecutions might be appropriate,” the department said of the Prather case.

District Attorney John Weddle did not return multiple calls.

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

Corinth is home to about 14,600 people, 70 percent of them white and 24 percent black. A Confederate soldier statue stands outside the courthouse on the town square.

Handwritten court records show that on Jan. 26, 1960, Glidewell pleaded guilty to manslaughter: “Ordered to serve 5 yrs. in State Penitentiary, the last 4 yrs. of which suspended on good behavior.”

Glidewell, who goes by his middle name Darnell, now lives off a country road north of Corinth. He answered the phone on a recent morning, and an Associated Press reporter asked about Prather’s killing.

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

He said investigators spoke to him about the case several years ago, and one said: “‘Don’t worry about it.’… But I ain’t heard any more from it.”

Glidewell said “four or five” of the people with him that night are still alive, but: “I don’t ever see them.”

Their names don’t appear in court records near Glidewell’s, but they are in the Justice Department letter, which says investigators learned that a group of white teens drove through a black neighborhood of Corinth on Halloween night 1959. Black witnesses said they saw the white teens throwing firecrackers at the black teens, and some black people threw rocks and bricks at the truck. Investigators were told that white teens got a shotgun from a home of one person in the group, then returned to the black part of town, where Glidewell shot Prather.

News reports from the time said Prather was not among those who had thrown rocks or bricks.

“Although Glidewell and some of the subjects contended that Glidewell had shot straight up in the air, the autopsy report indicated that Glidewell had aimed the shotgun dead-straight at your brother’s face,” the Justice Department letter said.

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

“He didn’t deserve what happened to him,” King said in a phone interview from her home near Atlanta.

The Justice Department letter says the all-white grand jury recommended six of the remaining white teens have their cases sent to youth court, and the one 18-year-old in the group have his case sent to a July 1960 grand jury; investigators found no record of any indictment of him.

A judge put the younger teens on probation and released them by 1961, writing that each “‘would make a good citizen,'” according to the letter.

Gennella Graham, who teaches English at Corinth High School, was born in 1975 and grew up in Corinth but had never heard of Prather until 2017, when she took a course and was assigned to write about her hometown’s “hidden history.” Graham was given Prather’s name and called an aunt, who is his cousin. Graham wrote a poem about Prather, which says, in part:
“Write that I,
“Wanted to fight,
“Wanted to live,
“But no one asked what I thought,
“What I wanted.”

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

“I just want them to know that he was important,” she said. “When you die, that’s not the end of your story.”