A half century ago at the ice house on the main street of Fayette, Miss., a white Adams County constable shot and killed a black Jefferson County shoe shine man.
Many in town had just returned from church when at 1 p.m. on Sunday, August 8, 1965, gunfire pierced the thick afternoon heat.
“I thought it was firecrackers,” recalled Tom Harper, son of a town doctor, who was a block away eating at the family table. “My uncle said, ‘That’s gunshots.’”
At the ice house, 65-year-old Johnny Queen, who had lost the use of his legs in a childhood accident, was dead. Witnesses recall his streaming blood mixing with melting ice water.
The man who killed Queen was 36-year-old Jasper W. Burchfield, who said at the time, and says today, he acted in self-defense. Burchfield’s account then and now is that after emerging from his car with all four passengers remaining inside, he heard Queen cursing. Because his mother and sister were within earshot of the profanity, Burchfield told Queen to watch his language.
Queen told Burchfield to mind his own business.
Things quickly turned deadly.
Now in his mid-80s, Burchfield acknowledges he killed Queen but insists Queen pulled a gun and fired first.
Within 24 hours, Burchfield was cleared by an all-white coroner’s inquest board and by the white justice of the peace. Local officials did not call for a grand jury investigation. The Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol (MHSP), the FBI and Jefferson County Sheriff Robert Pritchard did not investigate further.
But after almost four and a half decades, the FBI decided to launch an investigation. In 2007, the bureau placed Queen’s name on a list of unsolved Civil Rights-era killings it was reviewing. Today, Queen’s case is among 27 of more than 112 cases involving 125 victims that remain open. Yet the FBI says today it can’t disprove Burchfield’s claim of self-defense.
For the past two years, the Concordia Sentinel and investigative reporter Joe Shapiro with National Public Radio (NPR) have jointly investigated the Queen shooting. Scores of interviews were conducted. Seven individuals who were at the ice house on the day of the shooting and a doctor who served on the coroner’s inquest board are for the first time talking publicly about what they saw and heard on the day Queen was killed.
Queen’s death was suffered quietly by black residents of Fayette although months later a boycott led by NAACP leader Charles Evers would challenge the historic political, social and economic authority of whites. Evers had become the leader of the state’s NAACP following the murder of his brother, Medgar Evers, in 1963. In 1969, Charles Evers would be elected the first black mayor of Fayette.
Today blacks hold every major office in town and in Jefferson County, where 85 percent of the population of 7,700 is African-American.
Young people in Fayette today never heard of John Queen. But for some of the older residents, his death was life changing. The late Early Lott Sr., one of the first blacks to be elected to public office in the county after Reconstruction, told Ebony Magazine in February 1968 that Queen’s death inspired him to seek public office. Lott was elected constable in 1967.
“It was then…I decided that if the time ever came when I’d have a chance to try and change things I’d do it,” Lott told Ebony.
A half century ago, ice houses were the only places to buy ice in rural areas of the South. At the Fayette Ice House, ice was manufactured and sold in blocks or crushed by request.
On summer Sundays, the ice house was one of the few businesses open. Black teens enjoyed sitting on the porch with friends and catching an occasional rush of cool air when the door to the ice plant was opened.
Within both the black and white communities of 1965 Fayette, Queen was considered a town character, the polar opposite of Boo Radley, the introverted, ghost-like figure who only roamed at night in Harper’s Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Loud, sometimes gruff, sometimes confrontational and known to drink too much at times, Queen could be seen about town every day. He enjoyed playing checkers behind Ball’s Drug Store a few doors from the ice house. When he wasn’t playing checkers, he was shining shoes.
“I remember him popping that rag — pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” recalled Joseph Green, 62, who worked at the ice house in the years after Queen’s death. “He could make that rag talk to you.”
But some children found Queen’s physical disability and rough exterior frightening.
“I was afraid of Johnny as a kid,” said Tom Harper, the doctor’s son.
Hilda Johnson, who was 12 in 1965, says she was afraid of Queen, too, pointing out that his disability “made him...so odd.”
Not even Queen’s relatives know exactly what happened to his legs, but many attribute the injury as the result of a fall from the roof of the family home in the early 1900s when Queen was a boy.
What is clear is that the resulting disability made his survival difficult. In language of the day, Queen was a “cripple.” He shined shoes at 25 cents a pair to earn a living.
To move, Queen had to depend on the strength of his upper body — particularly his arms – to drag the dead weight of his legs forward. To provide height, he placed his hands atop two hand-made wooden boxes. Inside those boxes, he stored brushes, shoe polish and supplies. Some say he kept a knife inside one, while one man recalled he kept a pistol there.
The Rev. Percy Turner, chaplain of the correctional facility in Jefferson County, said Queen kept “a little gun” inside one of those boxes for protection due to his disability. Yet being “crippled” was not a crutch for Queen, Turner said.
“He never wanted anybody to think he was less than a man” because of his handicap. He “always wanted to prove his manhood.”
“He wasn’t going to take nothing off nobody,” said great-nephew, Peter Queen. “If you said something to him, he’d say something right back.”
In January 2012, the Sentinel and NPR knocked on Jasper Burchfield’s door to ask him about the shooting that is now the subject of an FBI investigation.
That killing was followed that August by two Ku Klux Klan attacks in neighboring counties — the murder of a white man, Earl Hodges, in Franklin County on Aug. 15 and the attempted carbombing murder of Natchez NAACP President George Metcalfe in Adams County on Aug. 27.
“You ain’t gonna talk to me about no s—t like that,” Burchfield responded about the Queen shooting. He said he had told two FBI agents in 2009 that it “wasn’t none of their damn business.” Asked why the FBI questioned him, he said, “I figure it ain’t none of your damn business...I ain’t telling you nothing. Zero.”
But, inexplicably, he changed his mind. For more than an hour, standing on his front porch in the community of Fenwick in Adams County, Miss., Burchfield talked about the shooting and his life. He survived a bout with cancer a few years ago.
FBI documents indicate that one year before the shooting the bureau identified Burchfield as one of dozens of Mississippi law enforcement officers who belonged to the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The informant was a Klansman who was a neighbor of Burchfield’s.
In February 1965 — six months prior to the shooting – the bureau reported Burchfield “spoke in a very derogatory manner” about Jews and blacks, while in 1966 the House Un-American Activities Committee reported that Burchfield was among scores of Klansmen who worked at International Paper Company in Natchez. HUAC also cited documents that the Adam’s County Sheriff’s Office suspected Burchfield was involved in the beating of a local black businessman.
“No indeed,” Burchfield said in January 2012 of the documents and the allegations. “Never been in that (the Klan).” He said he never attended any Klan meetings, didn’t know any Klansmen and was never involved in any beating.
He said he served two four-year terms as an Adams County constable in the 1960s. “I had no trouble getting elected,” he said. He described his responsibilities as being the “same as a deputy.”
A native of Itta Bena, Miss., Burchfield said marriage brought him to Adams County.
Today, despite being in his mid-80s, Burchfield says he works six days a week, arising at 4:30 in the morning and going to bed by 8:30 p.m. He says he doesn’t drink, smoke or “go out to jukes.”
Burchfield described his service in the Korean War from 1950-51 as a defining time in his life: “That place wasn’t worth one man’s life...I was on a machine gun, a .50 caliber...It was bad over there.”
He said he was shot at and saw men die. “That war was the worst thing I ever got in,” he said. “It takes a while to get over it...you jump at anything.”
Fourteen years later, Burchfield pulled over and stopped at the Fayette Ice House.
On the day of the shooting, Burchfield was traveling to Itta Bena. In his Buick were his mother, father and sister, all in the back seat, and a Fenwick teenager, a friend of the family, in the front passenger seat. Because the Buick’s radiator was “running hot,” he stopped at the ice house deck, which everyone in town called “the porch.” Burchfield said he intended to hang a sack of ice on the front of the radiator to keep it cool until he could have it repaired.
Burchfield’s car was parked pointing north, parallel to the ice house porch, which was about four feet above ground level. The building no longer exists. With the passenger side of the car next to the porch, Burchfield walked from the driver’s side to the back of the Buick. His pistol lay in the middle of the front seat.
He said two black ice house employees took his order for a sack of ice. At that time, teen sisters Martha Reed Wallace and Hilda Johnson, say they heard Burchfield tell Queen to stop cursing in front of his family. Johnson heard “raised voices” as the situation grew explosive in an instant although neither witnessed the violent confrontation that followed.
According to the 1965 Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol (MHSP) report, after the two argued, Burchfield turned away when Queen, on the ice house porch, allegedly pulled a pistol. MHSP said Burchfield’s mother, sitting in the back seat of her son’s car, shouted that Queen had a gun.
“That’s what saved me,” Burchfield told the Sentinel in 2012.
He also said in 2012 that an instant before Queen allegedly pulled the trigger, Burchfield, now standing at the driver’s door, shifted his weight before Queen fired. Instead of hitting Burchfield, the bullet reportedly splintered through the door of a house across the street. Recalling the incident in 2012, Burchfield said he instinctively reached into the driver’s side of his car and grabbed his weapon, which the coroner’s inquest described as a “.38 state police special.”
According to the documents obtained by NPR through the Freedom of Information Act, Burchfield told two FBI agents in 2009 that he reached for his “.357 magnum.” Burchfield said he still had the gun he used in the Queen shooting, but declined to show it to reporters.
Reports vary on how many shots were fired and in what order.
MSHP reported in 1965 that Queen attempted to fire again, but the gun clicked. Burchfield fired back, hitting Queen. The report said Queen rolled over and aimed his pistol again at Burchfield who responded by shooting Queen three more times.
Burchfield told the bureau in 2009 that after Queen missed, he fired two shots into Queen’s waist. Queen “slumped over” but then appeared to be trying to sit up to fire again when Burchfield said he fired twice more with one shot hitting Queen.
Pointing at his forehead, Burchfield told the Sentinel in 2012 that his last shot hit Queen at that spot: “That was the end of the show...that blood shot up out of him, over down on the concrete. I mean a pile of it...and he (Queen) just kind of shrunk and I knew that was it...seen too many die over in that (Korean) war.”
He estimated the distance between him and Queen at five to seven feet.
Melissa Wright, who lives in Florida today, was walking on the sidewalk across the street when the shooting occurred. Seven years old at the time, she said she was so traumatized by the sight of Queen’s body that her family left Mississippi months later.
“I didn’t want to sleep anymore,” she said. “I was always crying.”
Hilda Johnson, who had heard Queen and Burchfield arguing, said the shooting “seemed like a horror movie...That night I had the worst dream. I was looking at him (Queen) in the coffin...and then all of the sudden, he sneezed.”
Of the five people traveling in Burchfield’s car, only Burchfield and his sister, Delores Mullins of Ferriday, are still alive. Fourteen at the time, Mullins declined to discuss the case.
According to a 2009 FBI document, her account of the shooting is similar to her brother’s. Mullins said she saw Queen’s gun, heard it “click,” and was so terrified she climbed out of the car and ran down the street.
Documents show that agents asked her to take a polygraph in 2009, but she declined, and said additional questions should be posed to her attorney.
Upon hearing the gunfire, Tom Harper, a college student at the time, and his uncle left the family dining table and rushed to the scene about 400 feet south of the home of Harper’s father, Dr. W.T. Harper. Tom Harper told the Sentinel he saw Queen “on the porch, obviously dead, with blood all over the porch of the ice house and he was sort of laid out backwards and he still had a revolver in his right hand.”
He said Burchfield “was pretty cool about the whole thing. He was not excited or nervous as you might expect somebody to be who had just killed somebody.”
“I’ve got good nerve,” Burchfield told the Sentinel.
Harper said Burchfield told him at the scene that his (Burchfield’s) third shot hit Queen “through the center of Johnny’s forehead and that was the fatal blow.”
A short time later, Dr. W.T. Harper, and cousins Charles and Iamon Dawkins, in route to New Orleans, arrived at the scene.
“We needed ice to ice down our beer,” said Charles Dawkins. He saw Queen lying on the porch covered in blood and in his right hand saw “an old type” gun.
Also arriving on the scene was Joseph Green, who had left just minutes earlier. He said Queen was “on his side with his arms stretched out,” a “small caliber” pistol “in his hand.”
“That white fellow (Burchfield) was there,” Green said. His “big gun, a heavy caliber gun,” and “scabbard and everything was stretched out on the back of his car.”
Charles Dawkins and Tom Harper said Burchfield told them Queen fired first and Queen’s only shot went through the door of the house across the street.
Iamon Dawkins said Queen still had “a grip” on the pistol.
Eighty minutes after the shooting, Coroner R.A. “Sonny Boy” Cupit of Church Point, who died in 1994, convened a coroner’s inquest.
Six white men were randomly chosen to serve on the inquest board which met at the ice house. Five panelists — S.P. Gammill, Charlie A. Montgomery, K.C. Summer, Eugene Pringle and Dr. Harper, who observed Queen’s wounds at the scene — are all dead.
The only survivor is 77-year-old Dr. Elmo Gabbert of Meadville, Miss., who had only recently moved to Fayette. He said either the sheriff or the coroner presented the case, and no witnesses were called to testify.
Gabbert said a weapon was displayed at the inquest that was identified as Queen’s: “It was silver plated, had a black handle and I remember it was loaded...it was an old gun.” He said no one checked to see if any bullets had been fired.
Iamon Dawkins described the gun as an “owl head,” so called because the head of an owl was engraved in the handle. The maker of that inexpensive weapon, which has not been manufactured for decades, was the Iver Johnson Company.
Dawkins said the revolver was “broke open in the middle to load. It may have had an octagon barrel.” The gun he described matches a five-shot, .32 caliber. When shown photos of a .32 caliber owl head, Gabbert said, “Yes, the pictures are similar to the image I have in my memory.”
The coroner’s inquest board reported that “all the evidence available” indicated Queen “came to his death by reason to-wit: Four gunshot wounds” from a “.38 S&W, special pistol” that had been “fired by J.W. Burchfield, in our opinions, in self-defense.”
Gabbert said that in addition to seeing what was identified as Queen’s pistol, he recalled someone saying that Queen had intended “to kill somebody that day.”
JUSTICE OF PEACE HEARING
While the coroner’s report on the Queen shooting is filed at the Jefferson County Courthouse, no record of Justice of the Peace H.N. Dunnam’s hearing held the day after the shooting could be found despite an exhaustive search.
Dunnam’s daughter, Norma Parker of Georgia, said she possesses none of her late father’s records, adding that she never heard him discuss the case.
According to the Fayette Chronicle’s account of the hearing, which named Pritchard, the sheriff, as its source, witnesses “related that Queen began using vulgar and indecent language, and was requested by Burchfield to stop using the vulgar language in the presence of his family.”
The article indicated Queen fired first. Pritchard told the paper “justifiable homicide” was determined at the hearing following the testimony of eyewitnesses that included Burchfield, his family and “two colored men who operate the ice plant.”
Burchfield says the two black employees backed his story at the Justice of the Peace hearing.
Dewitt Wyatt of Vidalia, who grew up in Fayette, says his younger brother, Levi “Bo” Wyatt, then 16 years old, an ice house employee at the time, witnessed the shooting. Dewitt Wyatt said his brother, who went to on play basketball at Alcorn, was traumatized by the event.
“He never talked about it,” Dewitt Wyatt said, and never described what he witnessed.
Levi “Bo” Wyatt died in 2002.
Burchfield told the Sentinel in 2012 that Queen’s mother testified at the hearing that her son said he was “going to kill him a white man before he came back home” that day. But no documents could be found verifying that Queen’s mother, Johanna Hooks, testified at the hearing.
Despite two years of searching through records and cemeteries, no documents or headstones documenting Johanna Hooks’ death could be found.
A day after the shooting, FBI special agent Billy Bob Williams visited Fayette. Now 77, retired and living in Portland, Oregon, Williams had arrived in Natchez in July 1964 to work as the FBI’s liaison with local and state law enforcement officials to stop the racial violence.
He said Pritchard’s wife, Cecilia, actually was the elected sheriff although Pritchard as chief deputy was in charge and still called “sheriff.” Mississippi law at the time prevented a sheriff from serving a second consecutive term.
Pritchard is generally remembered today as a fair-minded man by both black and white citizens of Jefferson County.
“He was straight,” Rev. Turner said, and black people supported him.
“Mr. Pritchard was nice,” said Martha Wallace, who was at the ice house the day of the shooting. She said Pritchard and her father had a friendly relationship.
Pritchard was satisfied that Burchfield had acted in self-defense, Williams said.
Williams said he determined the shooting was not a Klan action and that the FBI had no jurisdiction in the matter. He said there was no evidence that Burchfield, as a constable, had violated the “color of the law” federal statue — Section 242 of Title 18 – because he was not acting in his official capacity when the shooting occurred.
In a statement concerning its current investigation, the FBI’s Adam Lee, Section Chief, Public Corruption/Civil Rights, Criminal Investigative Division, said:
“We realize that the death 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 (Burchfield’s) claim of self-defense. The FBI will consider any additional evidence concerning this matter from any credible source.”
The bureau asked that anyone with information to call the local FBI office.