The big news from Mississippi this weekend was the murder of Richard Barrett, a 67-year-old white supremacist who was beaten and stabbed to death—and then partially burned—by a 22-year-old black male and ex-con named Vincent McGee, with three accomplices allegedly helping after the fact. (For the basics on what’s known about the crime, see the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.) I spoke to Barrett a couple of times while researching the Willie McGee case. He didn’t know much about it, because it was too far before his time. And while I didn’t agree with his extreme opinions on race, obviously, he was a pleasant person to talk to on more benign subjects. I’m sorry he went out this way.
As you’ll see in the coverage, the motive for the murder isn’t known yet, but the main theories cluster into three basic groups:
1. That it was a hate crime, based on Barrett’s racist worldviews. A strong early contender, but this one has been trending down, because there’s no evidence for it yet other than the obvious: It just seemed likely.
Barrett, a New York City native who moved to Mississippi in 1966, spent decades as the head of a white supremacist group called the Nationalist Movement. He had a Web site, a scattering of young skinhead-y followers, and a talent for self-promotion. A lawyer and a prolific writer of emailed rants, Barrett was clever about getting news organizations to cover stunts that helped publicize his worldview: namely, that Mississippi in the mid-1960s pretty much had it right as far as blacks were concerned. Barrett believed they were inferior beings with a propensity towards murder, rape, and handouts. He was pro-segregation, of course, and he publicly championed people like Edgar Ray Killen, who was re-tried (and convicted) a few years ago for his role in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer.
Trackers of such things—like the Southern Poverty Law Center—didn’t seem to find Barrett particularly terrifying. Spokesman Mark Potok, a staffer who monitors hate groups, told the A.P. that “Richard Barrett was a guy who ran around the country essentially pulling off publicity stunts. He really never amounted to any kind of leader in the white supremacist movement.”
Still, with all the venom Barrett spewed, couldn’t counter-hate have been the motive? Possibly, but right now it’s running well behind theories 2 and 3: That it was a crime of anger, based on a labor-management dispute involving, of all things, yard work. Or that it was a hate crime prompted by a homosexual pass that, rumor has it, Barrett made towards McGee.
Barrett, ironically, lived in a mixed-race neighborhood outside of a town called Pearl, which is just east of Mississippi’s capital city, Jackson. McGee, who’d served time for assaulting policemen as a juvenile, lived in the same neighborhood. News reports have said that McGee performed yard work for Barrett at some forlorn lot Barrett owned, was paid a measly $26, and killed him over that.
There are also rumors that Barrett was a closet homosexual who used his right-wing movement to attract muscular young skinheads. During the initial flurry of post-murder stories, a story has circulated that McGee has already confessed that he went into a rage because Barrett made a sexual overture.
Of these theories, 3 currently seems most likely. It’s long been rumored on far-right Web sites that Barrett was gay, and he made many enemies on the fringe as a result. You can read (and hear) more about it through the offerings of Jim Giles, a white supremacist and Barrett foe. Here’s Giles talking about Barrett today on his DIY radio broadcast (warning: racist content); an email Giles sent to Barrett in 2008; and a Jackson Free Press Q & A with Giles.