By: Davis Houck
A little more than two months after the not-guilty verdict in the Emmett Till murder trial, and just two days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery City bus, Glendora resident Clinton Melton was gunned down on December 3, 1955, at a local gas station where he worked.
Married with four children, Melton was seen by his Glendora neighbors as a “good negro,” one who abided by the white supremacy of Jim Crow Mississippi without public fuss. So esteemed was Melton that his death was mourned on the front page of the December 8, edition of the Sumner Sentinel. Said the Glendora Lions Club, “We consider the taking of the life of Clinton Melton an outrage against him, against all the people of Glendora, . . . We intend to see to it that the forces of justice and right prevail in the wake of this woeful evil.”
The man accused of Melton’s murder was Elmer Odis Kimbell, who remarkably was best friends with John William (J.W.) Milam, and who, according to Carolyn Bryant, was with Bryant and Milam on the night of Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder. In addition, Kimbell was driving Milam’s truck before he shot Melton twice in the head with his shotgun. The offense? Kimbell had grown irate because Melton had filled the truck’s gas tank rather than putting in the $2 that he’d supposedly requested. And with that slight, Kimbell, who’d purportedly been drinking, raced home, grabbed his shotgun, and killed Melton on the spot 10 minutes later. Witnessing the bloody event were two black men, and white gas station owner, Lee McGarrh—who’d testified as a character witness at the Till trial on behalf of none other than J. W. Milam!
Shortly before the March 1956 trial was to begin, Melton’s widow, Beulah, drowned in Black Bayou; some claim that her car was forced off the road. Two of her children in the car with her survived the crash. It was Beulah Melton who insisted that Medgar Evers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) not involve itself with her husband’s case given the acrimony the organization had stirred with the Till trial. Despite the community outrage and the overwhelming evidence, Kimbell walked free in late March as a Sumner jury acquitted him of the murder, claiming he’d acted in self-defense.
Witnessing both the Till and Melton trials was a tall gangly reporter from the northeast, who’d come South for his first journalism job at the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Mississippi. David Halberstam would soon become a journalistic giant, but his reporting on the Melton case is largely responsible for shining a light on yet another Mississippi injustice. That story, “Tallahatchie County Acquits a Peckerwood,” ran in The Reporter on April 19, 1956, and is available online.