1959 racial slaying of Mississippi teen could get fresh look

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.

Posted: Aug 21, 2018 12:50 PM

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, a few miles south of the Tennessee line.

Eight white teens were charged with murder, but only one was convicted. 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 black teen's slaying 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 against any aging defendant in a decades-old case where witnesses' memories may be fading and some pieces of evidence, including the truck and the shotgun, have disappeared.

The case is briefly mentioned in a report the department filed in March — the same one that said the department is reviving its investigation into the brutal 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 Justice Department said of the Prather case.

The state prosecutor whose territory includes Corinth, District Attorney John Weddle, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

King said FBI agents knocked on her door a few years ago and hand-delivered a letter from the Justice Department. The letter said no federal charges could be brought in the killing of her brother, based on laws that existed 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 of the crime.

Corinth — pronounced coh-RINTH by locals — is home to about 14,600 people, 70 percent of them 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 remember fear and violence, others say the town was quiet as long as everyone, in the language of the times, "remembered their place."

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

A Confederate soldier still statue stands sentinel outside the courthouse on Corinth's town square.

Inside the courthouse, old handwritten 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 hilly 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.

As to what happened that Halloween night, he said: "I'd rather not talk to you on the phone."

But Glidewell responded to a few more questions. He said investigators spoke to him about the case several years ago, and one said: "'Don't worry about it.'"

"It's all over with, you know?" Glidewell said. "But I ain't heard any more from it. ... That's over 50 year ago."

Glidewell said "four or five" of the people with him that night are still alive. "I don't know where they live right now," he said. "I don't ever see them."

Their names don't appear in court records near Glidewell's, but they are listed in the Justice Department letter.

After the phone conversation, an AP reporter and photographer drove to Glidewell's house and knocked on the door. His wife said he has liver cancer, his memory is failing and he did not want to talk.

The Justice Department letter says that, based on investigators' interviews with witnesses, 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 young black people threw rocks and bricks at the truck. Investigators were told the white teenagers got a shotgun and shells from a home of one person in their group, then returned to the black part of town, where Glidewell shot Prather.

"Glidewell reported to police that before he fired the shotgun several of the subjects said, 'There they are, shoot,'" the Justice Department letter said.

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

"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 night.

"He didn't deserve what happened to him. ... Well, nobody deserves that," King said in a phone interview from her home near Atlanta. "He would just go to school, go back and do his chores at home."

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

A judge put the younger teens on probation and released them from that by March 1961, writing that each "'would make a good citizen,'" according to the Justice Department letter.

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

One of Johnson's nieces, 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 killing and about their kinship to Prather. Johnson also told her that Prather's 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 Mississippi, and he died a few years ago.

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 William Roy Prather.

"I know he just lived 15 years on this earth. But I would like to know — what was he interested in? Did he have a girlfriend? ... Did he have a job somewhere? Where did he attend church?" Graham said. "I just want them to know that he was important. When you die, that's not the end of your story."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 479326

Reported Deaths: 9353
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison32779484
Hinds30924582
DeSoto30319353
Jackson23542341
Rankin21235366
Lee14803219
Madison14120271
Jones13327223
Forrest13078236
Lauderdale11501303
Lowndes10377176
Lamar10163130
Pearl River9008217
Lafayette8193137
Hancock7404111
Oktibbeha6909122
Washington6900150
Monroe6459159
Neshoba6441201
Warren6387163
Pontotoc623093
Panola6203125
Bolivar6072144
Marshall6068121
Union571386
Pike5574135
Alcorn533289
Lincoln5283131
George466072
Scott454796
Leflore4444140
Prentiss443377
Tippah442180
Itawamba441599
Adams4376116
Tate4327101
Simpson4313112
Wayne430766
Copiah429587
Yazoo419686
Covington413292
Sunflower4123104
Marion4073104
Leake395486
Coahoma391098
Newton367274
Grenada3543104
Stone350359
Tishomingo333288
Attala324286
Jasper313162
Winston303091
Clay294173
Chickasaw286265
Clarke279890
Calhoun263940
Holmes261387
Smith248048
Yalobusha219647
Tallahatchie217550
Walthall209958
Greene206845
Lawrence205732
Perry198553
Amite197651
Webster195042
Noxubee177739
Montgomery171654
Jefferson Davis167442
Carroll161437
Tunica150834
Benton141533
Kemper138039
Claiborne126134
Choctaw126026
Humphreys125937
Franklin116328
Quitman103426
Wilkinson101536
Jefferson87333
Sharkey62320
Issaquena1926
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 778549

Reported Deaths: 13665
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1105871747
Mobile704651206
Madison49152610
Baldwin35946479
Shelby35796302
Tuscaloosa33410532
Montgomery32906672
Lee22231216
Calhoun20791397
Morgan19605326
Etowah18837449
Marshall17465272
Houston16452368
St. Clair15233293
Limestone14376182
Cullman14348246
Elmore14241256
Lauderdale13298278
Talladega12699230
DeKalb12036233
Walker10430323
Autauga9568133
Blount9555152
Jackson9235146
Coffee8728169
Colbert8426179
Dale8410170
Escambia6526114
Tallapoosa6501172
Covington6396163
Chilton6293141
Russell598555
Franklin5719100
Chambers5315133
Marion4734115
Dallas4665182
Clarke457076
Pike456294
Geneva4315116
Winston417192
Lawrence4086108
Bibb401680
Barbour341968
Marengo323183
Butler314988
Monroe314652
Pickens300470
Randolph299955
Henry298356
Hale289383
Cherokee284652
Fayette275672
Washington244848
Crenshaw235168
Clay225163
Macon217657
Cleburne217149
Lamar192140
Conecuh179646
Lowndes170158
Coosa166432
Wilcox155736
Bullock147742
Perry136036
Sumter124136
Greene120142
Choctaw72826
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