Last weekend, on February 6, Catherine Walker and I were emailing back and forth about our plans to interview people familiar with the unsolved civil rights murder of her father Clifton Walker 46 years ago. Around mid-afternoon we had a breakthrough; Catherine wrote to tell me about her conversation with the son of a possible eyewitness to the planning of the murder:
I explained to him how important today is: “DADDY’S birthday” How I need his Dad’s # to speak with him to move forward with the Justice quest. He understood.
For months, Catherine Walker and I have wanted to speak with a black man who reportedly witnessed the planning of the murder at Nettles Truck Stop, about 6 miles north of Woodville, MS. The FBI documents say the man
left the vicinity of Woodville, Mississippi, immediately after the murder of Walker ... he [said he] knew what would happen if he continued to hang around.
Some Woodville residents who know the possible eyewitness have told me they saw him about four years ago and that he told them he was at the truck stop on the night of the murder, February 28, 1964, and the planning of the murder was what he saw there.
I was pretty sure I’d located the possible eyewitness, and I was in Louisiana, so Catherine and I were making plans to go see him ourselves. Over the last year, both Catherine and I have been in touch with our subject's son, who lives in Baton Rouge, LA. The son told us that his family is actually kin to the Walkers and that he knows some of Catherine’s cousins well. He has information about the murder that he's heard from extended family currently living in Louisiana who were in Woodville in 1964. The son has been eager to help. He’s shared the information with us, but he hasn't felt comfortable arranging a meeting with his father. We originally thought he was trying to protect his father, but he eventually revealed to Catherine that he and his father do not get along.
We wanted the son to tell us his father’s general location or phone number so I could verify that my information was correct. Finally, on Clifton Walker’s 83rd birthday, the son came through, and his information matched mine.
The man we were looking for was at church when we got to his place. His wife and a slew of grandkids were all hanging out in a shotgun shack in a working class black neighborhood outside of New Orleans.
We sat in Catherine’s car outside the house and waited.
A few weeks after his 37th birthday, on February 28, 1964, Clifton Walker was ambushed on the deserted, unpaved Poor House Road, outside Woodville, MS. He was on his way home from the 3-11 pm shift at the International Paper plant in Natchez, MS. Gunmen shot up his car, blew out all the windows, and shot Clifton Walker at close range, multiple times in the head. No arrests were ever made. Walker’s wife Ruby died in 1992 not knowing what really happened. Clifton and Ruby’s five children are still in the dark about the murder.
For the two years I’ve known Catherine, we’ve been gaining on the case, but the progress is slow. We have a collection of federal and state documents, but we haven’t obtained any new documents for over a year. Many of the people mentioned in the documents are dead. Few of them who are still living have been willing to talk. People with knowledge of the case are dying off.
But on Sunday we were feeling hopeful. Catherine made a good connection with the wife of the possible eyewitness when we went up to the house and found out he was at church. Afterwards, while we sat in the car waiting the man to return, Catherine said:
I’m glad he’s in church. That means he’s gonna come back with the spirit in him and he’s gonna be really nice to us. That’s what he’s gonna do. He’s gonna talk to us.
Even if he doesn’t, if he was afraid, he can just tell us what he heard, what he knows that made everyone else think he knew too much. That would help.
Our man came back from church in the late afternoon and we talked with him at length. Though he admitted knowing the people in Woodville that I talked to, he denied having any first hand knowledge of the murder.
But he had some other information we did not expect him to have. He recalled an encounter with the FBI in 1964.
The FBIs came up to my house. They had his picture and all that where he got shot. They had him naked, laying out on the table.
According to him, the photo showed that Walker was shot on his right side---twice in the shoulder, twice in thigh and twice in the lower leg. He also said that the right side of Walker’s face was shot off “on an angle,” as if he was leaning over to the right when he was taking it in the face.
The information our interviewee recalled from the FBI's photo comports with first- and second-hand accounts of numerous bullet holes in at least one side of Walker's car. It also potentially corroborates what Catherine's mother Ruby told her---that she, Ruby, was told by FBI agents in 1964 that they found empty shotgun shells all along the banks of the road where Walker was shot. Our new information about the wounds on just the right side of Walker's body could also help to establish with more certainty the sequence of events that occurred out on Poor House Road.
For three years we’ve had a 1964 Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol (MHSP) report that described the wounds to Walker’s head but made no indication of wounds to other parts of the body. In the report, highway patrolmen recount photographing Walker's body at the funeral home at about 7:30 pm on February 29, before the pathologist had arrived to do the autopsy. The photo that the FBI reportedly showed our interview subject may have been one of the MHSP photos or it may have been from the autopsy which was performed later the same night. If this eyewitness report concerning the photo is correct, it raises questions about why such crucial details would have been left out of the MHSP report.
If there was a crowd of men firing on Walker's car from the banks of Poor House Road road, that substantially increases the likelihood that there are still living perpetrators. And for each person directly involved, there are possible others with knowledge of the perpetrator's actions.
If the FBI had the photo taken either by the MHSP or the coroner, then there were likely multiple copies and there is a better chance that the photo still exists somewhere. "I would like to even have those pictures," Catherine said.
(Cross-posted on Civil Rights Cold Case Project)