During a conversation after a county commission meeting recorded on March 6, Sheriff Kevin Clardy, sheriff’s office employees, and elected officials in McCurtain County, Oklahoma, expressed a desire to return to the era when Black people were lynched.
“I’m gonna tell you something. If it was back in the day, when that when Alan Marshton would take a damn black guy and whoop their ass and throw him in the cell? I’d run for fucking sheriff,” District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings said, according to the McCurtain Gazette-News, a print-only publication that released a transcript of the recording, which continues:
Sheriff: Yeah. Well, It’s not like that nomore.
Jennings: I know. Take them down to Mud Creek and hang them up with a damn rope. But you can’t do that anymore. They got more rights than we got.
This is the second time in the last two months that white elected officials have spoken positively about racial terror lynchings.
Racial Terror Lynching in McCurtain County
Located in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma and bordering Arkansas and Texas, McCurtain County is often called “Little Dixie,” because of the influence of white Southerners who settled there after the Civil War, the Associated Press reports.
After slavery ended, many white people remained committed to racial hierarchy and used lethal violence and terror against Black communities to maintain a racial, economic, and social order that oppressed and marginalized Black people. Lynching became the most public and notorious form of racial terrorism and created a legacy of injustice that can still be felt today.
Of the thousands of Black people lynched in America, nearly all were brutally killed without being legally convicted of any offense. Many African Americans were lynched for perceived violations of social customs, engaging in interracial relationships, or being accused of crimes just because they were Black.
White mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system, seizing their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or from police custody without fear of legal repercussions for the lynchings that followed. In this environment of official indifference, racial terror remained systematic, far-reaching, and devastating to the Black community for generations.
EJI has documented three racial terror lynchings in McCurtain County between 1877 and 1950—more than all but four other counties, one of which is Tulsa, where hundreds of Black people were massacred in 1921.
All three victims in McCurtain County were Black men who were in the sheriff’s custody when they were lynched.
During the era of racial terror, armed law enforcement officers responsible for protecting the people in their custody almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs. In some cases, police were found to be complicit or active participants in lynchings.
In 1911, a 12-year-old white girl said a young Black man attacked her on the railroad track in Idabel but she escaped after a brief struggle and ran home. A young Black man whose name was not reported was captured and taken by train to the jail in nearby Valliant. “As soon as the story of the attack spread around town,” the Galena Evening Times reported—and before any trial—a mob of white men “infuriated by the story” took the young man from the jail and hanged him from a tree on the local fairgrounds.
Mobs in Idabel tried repeatedly to lynch Thad Brown after he was charged with killing a white man in nearby Eagletown. On February 25, 1910, Mr. Brown was secreted to a closed courtroom, where he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to life imprisonment. But when a sheriff’s deputy took him from the jail to board a train just outside Idabel, a crowd of citizens overtook them and, the Evening News reported, “shot the negro to pieces.”
A mob of 500 white people took Oscar Martin from the courtroom during his trial for “a statutory offense” involving a 13-year-old white girl, according to the Morning Tulsa Daily World. Before the judge could announce a decision in the case, the mob overpowered officers in the courtroom on the second floor of the courthouse, place a rope around Mr. Martin’s neck, rushed him out onto a porch, tied the end of the rope to the porch railing, and pushed him off the building. The paper reported he fell about 12 feet and “died within a few minutes.” A few pistol shots were fired and then the mob dispersed.
While most of the racial terror lynchings EJI has documented during this era took place in the South, more than 300 people were lynched outside the South. With 75 lynchings from 1877 to 1950, Oklahoma is the non-Southern state with the highest number of racial terror lynchings.
The recording also captured a disturbing discussion about hiring hit men to kill Bruce Willingham, publisher and editor of the McCurtain Gazette-News, and his son, Chris Willingham, a reporter for the Gazette-News who had filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and county commission that day.
A woman identified as Alicia Manning, an investigator for the sheriff’s office, says she might not be able to control herself if she ran into Chris Willingham outside the Gazette-News’s office, the Gazette-News reported.
“Yeah, I ain’t worried about what he’s gonna do to me,” Ms. Manning reportedly said. “I’m worried about what I might do to him. My papaw would have whipped his ass, would have wiped him and used him for toilet paper.”
Referring to the Willinghams, Mr. Jennings allegedly said, “I know where two big, deep holes are here if you ever need them.”
“I’ve got an excavator,” the sheriff reportedly responded.
Mr. Jennings allegedly added that he knows “two or three hit men, they’re very quiet guys” in Louisiana who “would cut no f***ing mercy.”
Bruce Willingham told KWTV Channel 9 in Oklahoma City that he left a voice-activated recorder behind after the county commission meeting on March 6 to obtain evidence that officials were carrying on county business secretly in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Recordings made in a place where the officials had no reasonable expectation of privacy are legal, one expert told the Associated Press. The McCurtain County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that the recording was illegally obtained and may have been altered.
Mr. Willingham said he believes the officials were upset about the paper’s reporting on corruption in the sheriff’s office, including a recent series by Chris Willingham alleging mismanagement and favoritism in the sheriff’s department.
The Gazette also recently sued the sheriff’s office to obtain body camera footage and other records connected to the death of Bobby Barrick, who died last year after McCurtain County deputies shot him with a stun gun, the AP reported.
Bruce and Chris Willingham have been warned to leave town, KJRH reported.
“For nearly a year, they have suffered intimidation, ridicule and harassment based solely on their efforts to report the news for McCurtain County,” the Willingham’s legal counsel told CNN.
Protests and Calls for Resignations
Hundreds of residents protested at the McCurtain County Commissioners office and the sheriff’s office on Monday morning, joining with Idabel Mayor Craig Young and Gov. Kevin Stitt to demand that the officials in the recordings resign.
“I am both appalled and disheartened to hear of the horrid comments made by officials in McCurtain County,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement Sunday. “There is simply no place for such hateful rhetoric in the state of Oklahoma, especially by those that serve to represent the community through their respective office. I will not stand idly by while this takes place.”
The governor called for the immediate resignations of McCurtain County Sheriff Kevin Clardy, District 2 Commissioner Mark Jennings, sheriff’s investigator Alicia Manning, and jail administrator Larry Hendrix.
He also said he would ask the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to investigate.
Channel 9 reported on Sunday that the FBI is investigating the alleged death threats against the journalists.
The Oklahoma State Conference National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) joined the demand for immediate resignations and also called for the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate the Mud Creek area based on the comments about hanging Black people there.