Black communities around Mississippi have long raised concerns about suspicious deaths of young Black men, especially when law enforcement is involved. 

Curley Clark, vice president of the Mississippi NAACP at the time of Reveal’s reporting, called Billey Joe Johnson Jr.’s case an example of “Mississippi justice.” 

“It means that they still feel like the South should have won the Civil War,” Clark said. “And also the laws for the state of Mississippi are slanted in that direction.”

Before Johnson died during a traffic stop with a White sheriff’s deputy, friends say police had pulled him over dozens of times. And some members of the community raised concerns that police had been racially profiling Black people.  

Reveal investigates Johnson’s interactions with law enforcement and one officer in particular.  

This episode was originally broadcast in November 2021.

Dig Deeper

Listen: The whole Mississippi Goddam series

Explore: Dig into the case files and documents about the death of Billey Joe Johnson.

Read: Yahoo sports reporters Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson published an in-depth investigation into the case in 2009. (Yahoo News) 


Reporters and producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones | Series editor and executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Series producer: Michael I Schiller | Series digital editor: Nina Martin | Series assistant producer: Steven Rascón | Series production manager: Amy Mostafa | Series digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checkers: Rosemarie Ho and Nikki Frick | Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery, Laurel Hennen Vigil and Melissa Lewis | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Kathryn Styer Martinez | General counsel: D. Victoria Baranetsky | Special thanks: Katharine Mieszkowski, Alexis Hightower and Jen Chien

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy.

Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. As a kid, growing up in a close-knit community can feel like there is magic in the air. Every morning is filled with possibility because at some point in the day, you and your friends are going to get into something. Waving to your neighbors you’ve known most of your life, playing until the streetlights come on, for better or for worse, everybody knows your name. For Lawrence Blackmon, that place was Canton, Mississippi.  
Lawrence Blackm…:I loved it. For the most part, I thought that Canton was a very unique place. Most of the people here know each other, families know each other. We go to church together. We go to school together. I really enjoyed the level of connectedness that we had and shared as a community.  
Al Letson:Canton is the seat of Madison County, one of the wealthiest areas in Mississippi. But Canton, a mostly Black town, doesn’t share in that wealth. Lawrence says as kids he didn’t really notice it. It wasn’t until he went away for college and he got to see other places that he began to understand that his hometown had problems. For decades, the Sheriff’s Department had been accused of terrorizing the Black community. From beating Black activists in the 1960s to stopping and searching Black drivers and pedestrians.  
Lawrence Blackm…:They do have a reputation for being aggressive. They have a reputation for racism within the department and for policing tactics that they employ, specifically in and around Canton, but that they don’t do in Ridgeland and Madison, which are predominantly white cities within the county.  
Al Letson:Lawrence says this is part of the reason why he went to law school. After graduating, he came home and people started reaching out to him.  
Lawrence Blackm…:I was studying for the bar, and it was well known within our neighborhood that I was preparing to enter the practice of law and so I would always get calls from people even before I was licensed to practice just about their different legal woes.  
Al Letson:On June 16, 2016, a woman named Quinetta Manning called him. Earlier that day, one of her neighbors had some kind of domestic issue, possibly a burglary. Quinetta and her husband Khadafi weren’t involved, but they were outside when the cops got there. They went back into their apartment and soon after officers barge in without a warrant.  
Lawrence Blackm…:They did so while their kids were in the house. He was only partially clothed because it was so early in the morning. But she told me that she had most of the interaction on cell phone video.  
Al Letson:In the cell phone video, sunlight shines through maroon curtains, silhouetting a sheriff’s deputy. Khadafi is next to him, dressed in a white tank top and boxers. He sways a little, with his hands cuffed behind his back.  
Khadafi Manning:Officer, please, why are you handling me like this?  
Deputy Sheriff:Because you won’t-  
Khadafi Manning:I ain’t do nothing.  
Deputy Sheriff:Because you ain’t acting right. You going to stand there and lie to me.  
Al Letson:Khadafi’s voice sounds strange because the deputy’s hand is gripping his throat. Khadafi’s disabled and walks with a cane. It’s taking all of his strength to stand up. The deputy uses a slur when speaking to him.  
Deputy Sheriff:Is that right?  
Quinetta Mannin…:Yes sir.  
Deputy Sheriff:All three of you run right up the steps. And cripple here, run up the steps too.  
Quinetta Mannin…:When they said the police were coming, I came on back up in my house.  
Al Letson:The deputy’s fury is palpable. He wants the Mannings to write witness statements saying they saw the burglary break in.  
Deputy Sheriff:Now y’all can come clean or you can go down to jail and by Tuesday you can see a judge and get you about a $50,000 bond for burglary.  
Al Letson:Quinetta tries to reason with them, but the cops will not be deterred.  
Deputy Sheriff:Do you write okay?  
Khadafi Manning:Yes, sir.  
Deputy Sheriff:You work?  
Quinetta Mannin…:I got it.  
Khadafi Manning:No, I’m disabled. I get a check on the third.  
Deputy Sheriff:But you can write, so back to the first question I asked. You going to be a witness or are you going to be a suspect? Because you can put it on paper or you just as guilty as he is and we going on down to jail.  
Al Letson:When Khadafi says he didn’t see anything, the cops escalate the situation.  
Khadafi Manning:I ain’t saying he didn’t do it. I ain’t saying whether he broke in. I ain’t say you didn’t break in. I’m saying-  
Deputy Sheriff:Come on [inaudible 00:04:50].  
Khadafi Manning:What I do?  
Deputy Sheriff:You’re going to jail. I’m tired of fooling with you. I don’t want to fool with you no more. You don’t want to act right, you’re going to jail. Come on.  
Khadafi Manning:What am I going to jail for?  
Deputy Sheriff:Absolutely.  
Quinetta Mannin…:Can I put him on some pants? He need some pants?  
Deputy Sheriff:No, they going to take them off anyway and give him a jumpsuit. He don’t wear no pants in jail.  
Al Letson:The officers grab Khadafi and push him out of the apartment. No regard for his disability.  
Khadafi Manning:Man, please-  
Deputy Sheriff:Miss, you want to go too?  
Khadafi Manning:… I been shot five times in the spinal cord.  
Deputy Sheriff:He’s all right.  
Khadafi Manning:Please. Please.  
Al Letson:Quinetta calls Lawrence for help.  
Lawrence Blackm…:I was shocked but not surprised, because I had been through a similar situation probably just about a year or maybe not even a year prior to that incident. This is when they had come into my grandmother’s house.  
Al Letson:Earlier that year, Lawrence says, Sheriff’s deputies had gone to his grandmother’s house. He says they mistook him for his cousin. Came into the house with guns drawn. They put him in handcuffs and left him on the floor.  
Lawrence Blackm…:They proceeded to search my grandmother’s house. That was a very scary moment for me because I was laying in my grandmother’s dining room on the floor, handcuffed with three officers, very big guys speaking to me very aggressively with their guns drawn. I honestly thought that I could be killed at any moment.  
Al Letson:The cops eventually let Lawrence go. But when Quinetta calls him, he’s had enough. Instead of representing her case as an attorney, he wants to join it as a fellow plaintiff in a class action suit against the sheriff’s department.  
Lawrence Blackm…:The first thing I did was just start calling different attorneys and I think one of the last organizations that I reached out to was the ACLU. The ACLU of Mississippi immediately launched an investigation and the more people who they talked to, the more stories they heard. Horror stories they heard about people’s experiences with the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.  
Al Letson:The ACLU said that thousands of people lived in fear of police simply because they were Black. They filed a class action lawsuit against the Sheriff’s department with Lawrence, Khadafi, Quinetta and several other plaintiffs. In 2019, a federal judge approved a settlement deal. Under it, the Sheriff’s Department didn’t admit to any wrongdoing, but they did pay damages to the plaintiffs and agreed to a four-year consent decree. That included police training and a promise to end the practice of roadblocks near Black neighborhoods. The ACLU called it a great first step. Years earlier, the Black community was raising similar concerns about racial profiling in another part of Mississippi, George County, about three hours south of Madison. The same county where Billy Joe Johnson died during a traffic stop in 2008.  
Nasombi Lambrig…:The community was very upset. They were angry at the police. There were all these incidents of clashes between community and law enforcement.  
Al Letson:Nasombi Lambright was the executive director of the Mississippi ACLU at the time.  
Nasombi Lambrig…:They had constantly had problems with the police and with what they felt was racial profiling in the Black community. They said that that was just not a new issue for them, so they were very upset. Upset about how they were being treated not only by the police department, but by the entire city government structure. It didn’t feel like they were getting any answers or any respect.  
Al Letson:This is the rebroadcast of Reveal’s serial investigation.  
Speaker 7:(Singing).  
Al Letson:Mississippi Goddam, the Ballad of Billy Joe. Episode six, Mississippi Justice. While we’ve been working on this series, we went through the investigative files, looked at all the evidence, talked to the medical examiner and the lead investigator. But to really understand what happened to Billy Joe Johnson, you’ve got to put it into context. When a Black person dies in police custody, we usually hear the official story, which rarely takes into consideration the lived experience of the Black community and their relationship with cops.  
 We went beyond what investigators did. We reached out to friends and family to see what else was happening in his life and early on they started to raise questions about Billy Joe’s relationship with police. That’s something Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel came across in the weeks after Billy Joe died. They were reporters for Yahoo Sports.  
Charles Robinso…:I remember coming across myself and Dan had come across people talking on some message boards.  
Al Letson:In January of 2009, they were getting ready for the Super Bowl when they heard about his death.  
Charles Robinso…:Billy Joe Johnson, who was a running back in Mississippi, considered probably one of the top 10 running backs in the country.  
Al Letson:Something about the story sticks with them. This was all before Facebook and Twitter back when it was all message boards.  
Charles Robinso…:As Dan and I started to read the threads of messages, clearly there were people in the town and people from the high school who had felt like there was something missing, that truth was missing. Dan and I knew there was a period of time before the Super Bowl where we had a window where we said, “Hey, what if we just got on a plane?” We decided to fly to Mississippi and maybe look into this a little bit.  
Al Letson:Charles and Dan fly to Mississippi and start looking into the story. When they get to Lucedale, it’s just over a month after Billy Joe’s death. They started hearing that Billy Joe had been pulled over by police dozens of times.  
Charles Robinso…:I remember talking to not only family members, but then some of Billy Joe Johnson’s friends were like, “Look, it was a multitude of police officers that Billy Joe Johnson had issues with.” That he was getting pulled over a lot. Particularly those who were close to him felt like he had been harassed repeatedly by certain specific officers.  
Al Letson:They interview Billy Joe’s friends who say, “He liked to drive fast down country roads.” But they don’t believe that’s why he was being pulled over.  
Charles Robinso…:They felt like a number of officers had it out for him, didn’t like him, didn’t like the fact that he had an element of a claim, didn’t like the fact that he was dating a white girl.  
Al Letson:Curley Clark of the Mississippi NAACP also investigated the case.  
Curley Clark:We met with the district attorney from the standpoint that we provided him, and the DA at that time was Tony Lawrence. We provided him with a witness list, people that we had interviewed that we wanted him to follow up on.  
Al Letson:Included on that witness list was a deputy from the George County Sheriff’s Department, Justin Strahan. We couldn’t find any sign that Lawrence acted on the information, but several people we interviewed also mentioned Strahan’s name  
Joe Bradley:When there was something went on between far as police harassment, I was around because I always caught him home from football practice.  
Al Letson:Joe Bradley is Billy Joe’s cousin. He said he’d be in the passenger seat a lot of the time when Billy Joe was pulled over.  
Joe Bradley:We may have been stopped maybe six times in a month’s time. This was either coming from practice or either after the games on Friday night after all the vehicles done left the stadium and we’re leaving in the midst of a crowd that we’re spotted out of thousands of people to be stopped.  
Al Letson:Joe says it was usually the same officer pulling them over, Justin Strahan.  
Joe Bradley:The best way that I can explain it is that anytime that we were stopped, it was Strahan. He don’t say anything. He just, “License and registration.” Then my cousin asked why he pulling me over and this and that and then it’s more of an argument than a job being done. It’s always license and registration and then when stuff checks out good, there’s no explanation of why I was pulled over.  
Al Letson:Billy Joe’s friend Drew Bradley tells my reporting partner Jonathan Jones, he was with Billy Joe when it happened too.  
Drew Bradley:It was multiple things. It was something we talked about how he was given such a hard time and never wrote no tickets. He just pulled us over and gave us a hard time and harassed us.  
Charles Robinso…:You said you were pulled over a couple of times with Billy, but if you were going to say specific, you think it was three times maybe?  
Drew Bradley:No, I’d say probably upwards around close to 10 times.  
Charles Robinso…:10 times. That’s a lot.  
Drew Bradley:Like I said, man, it wasn’t no secret.  
Al Letson:We’ve been working on this story for a little over three years now and Justin Strahan’s name has come up over and over again. According to the state, he’s worked as a police officer, sheriff’s deputy, and with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. In 2018, Mississippi Crime Stoppers recognized him as officer of the year, but the people we spoke to say he’s harassed them and used excessive force.  
Carrie Moles:I know that he at one point did a lot of unnecessary policing of the Grove.  
Al Letson:Carrie Moles is a seven time alderman in Lucedale. Her ward includes the Grove. The Grove is where primarily Black people live?  
Carrie Moles:Black people, yeah. The grove that’s in my ward. He was one who was always showing up, pushing the boundaries of what he could do. Anytime anything went on, he always showed up and he was so ugly and so rude to the Black people, always.  
Al Letson:It’s not just Black folks, we heard from white people too.  
Lance Parker:Yeah, he always had a bad attitude as long as I knew him. I’ve always known him to have a pretty crappy attitude.  
Al Letson:Lance Parker, a white Lucedale resident, told us about his own experience with Justin Strahan.  
Lance Parker:I had confrontation with him in my younger days.  
Al Letson:Lance says he was driving home with a few friends when Strahan pulled him over for a busted tag light.  
Lance Parker:I opened the car door and held my hands out, before I unbuckled my seatbelt I turned and look and this guy’s got his gun out. I’m like, “Hey man.” As soon as I get my seatbelt off, the guy instead of asking me to step out of the car, tries to drag me out of the car.  
Al Letson:He says Strahan gave him a breathalyzer to see whether he’d been drinking. He says when it came back negative, Strahan started to pull everything out of his car and threw it on the side of the road.  
Lance Parker:This is the type of guy that he is.  
Al Letson:We haven’t been able to verify these traffic stops. The George County Sheriff’s Department told us they were unable to locate any records connected to Strahan because apparently the previous administration had gotten rid of any extraneous records. Strahan never responded to our letters, emails, phone calls or social media messages, so we weren’t able to talk to him. But one former officer did speak to us about Strahan. Stuart Fairchild worked for the Lucedale Police Department. He was one of the officers who went to Hannah’s trailer the morning of Billy Joe’s death.  
JJ:Do you know Justin Strahan?  
 Stuart Fairchi…:Yes.  
JJ:His name has come up a lot. He supposedly, Billy Joe had been pulled over a lot before his death by police officers, specifically by Justin Strahan.  
Al Letson:I’m just going to be honest, you had the exact same reaction that pretty much everybody we talk to when we bring up Justin Strahan’s name. They get really quiet for a while and you can tell that they’re really thinking through exactly how they want to broach that subject. Are there any other people on the police force that you would pause that long for?  
 Stuart Fairchi…:A few? Not many. That’s more out of disappointment. He disappointed me in a lot of ways.  
Al Letson:“He just disappointed me in a lot of ways.” That’s all he would say. There isn’t one mention of Justin Strahan’s name in the case file by investigators or anyone they interviewed. We wanted to better understand Billy Joe’s interaction with police so we asked the lead investigator, special agent Joel Wallace, why he didn’t interview Strahan. Was this something that you heard when you were [inaudible 00:18:34] that he was targeted by the police? You never heard that.  
Joel Wallace:No. Who was the one particular officer?  
JJ:Justin Strahan.  
Joel Wallace:Justin Strahan’s a narcotic agent. Nobody gave me that name. If they had gave me that name, I guarantee you I would’ve interviewed him and had him in there.  
Al Letson:In our interviews with Wallace, he keeps making the same point, that he focused on talking to people who crossed paths with Billy Joe the morning he died. Next we go back to the traffic stop to hear from police who arrived on the scene. Some almost immediately after Sullivan radioed that Billy Joe had shot himself.  
Officer:Within the 10 or 15 seconds I got there, he never did anything that was out of the way. I stood beside him the whole time until other officers arrived.  
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.  
Joe Sullivan:Investigator, my location subject shot himself.  
Al Letson:When Deputy Joe Sullivan radioed in that Billy Joe Johnson had shot himself, several law enforcement officers from the George County Sheriff’s Department and the Lucedale Police Department arrive on the scene almost immediately. The first officer was Kevin McDonald, a game warden with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. He says he was nearby and responded to Sullivan’s call for assistance.  
Kevin McDonald:Within the 10 or 15 seconds I got there, he never did anything that was out of the way and I stood beside him the whole time until other officers arrived. There was also a shotgun on the scene laying approximately two or three feet from the subject on the ground.  
Al Letson:George County Sheriff’s Department deputy Eric Purvis was the second person to arrive. He was Sullivan’s partner.  
Eric Purvis:I arrived about, I’m estimating three to four minutes later. As I pulled up, I noticed that Officer Sullivan’s car was parked in the driveway along with Game Warden Kevin McDonald’s pickup.  
Al Letson:Police training manuals recommend interviewing people right away so they can recall as many details as possible, as accurately as possible. But Deputy Purvis wasn’t interviewed until December 27th, 19 days after Billy Joe died. He tells investigators that he started putting up crime scene tape and immediately asked Sullivan what happened.  
Eric Purvis:Basically he just told me that he had pulled the young man over and came back to run his license and just heard a gunshot and looked up and he had fallen to the ground and had shot himself. He didn’t know on purpose, on accident or what had happened and basically that was the gist of what I know about it.  
Al Letson:Lucedale police officer, Stuart Fairchild, we talked to him earlier. James O’Neill arrive a little more than five minutes after Sullivan first called in the shooting. When other officers show up, they tell them that Billy Joe had been at his ex-girlfriend’s place earlier in the morning. O’Neill starts speculating about what could have happened.  
James O’Neill:What the hell? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s over the girlfriend breaking up with him or something else in the truck. Or something on him that he did this and didn’t want get caught with. Or I don’t know what. You never know. Jam up football player.  
Al Letson:The statements from law enforcement are incredibly important. Because investigators relied on them in large part as evidence that there was no foul play or misconduct. All five of the officers we’ve mentioned have left their jobs. O’Neill has since died. We reached out to the rest of them for an interview. Only Fairchild and Sullivan’s former partner Eric Purvis agreed to speak to us. Purvis now owns a mobile home park just off of the highway in Lucedale. He works as a roofer and carpenter, which is what he was doing when we met him down a long road tucked in the forest. He takes us back to that morning.  
Eric Purvis:Well, let me back up. Officer Sullivan and I agreed to meet up at Waffle House. He was on the way over there and I was still loading my stuff up in my car. I heard Officer Sullivan get in pursuit of a vehicle that had just run the red light.  
Al Letson:He tells us more or less the same thing we’ve already heard about Sullivan pulling over Billy Joe and he remembers hearing Sullivan on the radio.  
Eric Purvis:Officer Sullivan was back in the car and was fixing to start running the license and all of a sudden he said, sheriff’s office, “SO, the subject just shot himself.”  
Al Letson:Here’s what we know about Sullivan. He was new to George County at the time, had been there about seven months. He told investigators that he wasn’t related to anyone in town, but we found out that his sister-in-law was an assistant DA there. We know that from 1985 to 2008, he switched law enforcement jobs at least eight different times. We don’t know why he moved around because state laws keep his employment records secret. Can you tell me a little bit about who Sullivan was?  
Eric Purvis:Officer Sullivan was just a laid back guy. He’s just somebody that didn’t stand out. Real friendly. He and I like to hang out together. We ate breakfast. If you don’t like your partner, you’re not going to go meet him and eat breakfast every morning with them. I also went up to the state. I considered doing that when he asked me. I like Officer Sullivan. Nice guy. If I felt like there was one chance that, well, he could have done that, no, there’s no way I’d hang around that guy.  
JJ:I think when it comes to the case of Billy Joe, the thing that is I think interesting to me and also Jonathan, is that there seems to be a divide about the way people look at the case. I think that goes back from back when you were on the police force with Officer Sullivan. Can you just explain to us how you guys were feeling as police officers and how you felt the community was looking at the case? Like that kind of thing?  
Eric Purvis:There’s always going to be a few people not having any information that’s going to think the worst. That’s human nature. As a whole, down here right now, we don’t have any racial divide. The only ones that you’d say, well, there’s a racial divide anywhere is where you have just a handful on both sides, that will never change. But 95% of the people don’t give a rip if you’re Black, white, whatever color. They’re just nice loving people down here. It’s not like it used to be.  
Al Letson:We also asked him what he thinks happened that day.  
JJ:One of the things that the grand jury ruled was that it was an accidental shooting. That Billy Joe Johnson was reaching for the gun and that-  
Eric Purvis:I don’t believe that for a second.  
JJ:What do you think?  
Eric Purvis:I believe he stuck it in his mouth. I believe that, he did.  
JJ:I think that part of maybe the distrust is that the grand jury says it’s an accidental, but then…  
Eric Purvis:I’m not saying it’s not a possibility.  
Al Letson:Purvis believes that Billy Joe killed himself. Purvis was generous with his time, but to be honest, after this interview we still didn’t know much more about Deputy Sullivan. Just as we were about to leave, Purvis had some more thoughts.  
JJ:I appreciate you answering my questions.  
Eric Purvis:The only problems down here, if you’re talking about racial stuff, would be very minute on either side. Everybody that’s Black and white that I know of likes each other. When I go places, people don’t even think about it anymore. They’ll go over, they hug each other’s neck and meet for lunch or whatever. Mississippi gets a bad rap from bad stuff that happened way back when. Most of those people are dead and gone.  
JJ:I wonder if it is that history that makes people somewhat distrustful of the official version of events. Because obviously, like you said, there is this history of incidents back in the past. I wonder if that may play a role in the distrust.  
Eric Purvis:It’s just people, brother. But I’m just saying that racial stuff is just baloney for that even going on down here anymore.  
Al Letson:When JJ and I get in the car, we unpacked what happened in the interview. JJ thought I should have challenged him more and that I let Purvis get off too easy, especially on his comments about race.  
JJ:He also said there’s no racism in George County, or very little.  
Al Letson:I wasn’t even going to engage with him on that. Okay, I’m not going to engage. Listen, when a white person tells me that there’s no racism in anything, my response is okay, I’m not going to have that argument with you because I’m not going to be able to change your mind. Why would I even want to try? It’s a waste of time. When I was a kid or younger, I would argue it with people, but as a silver fox, I’m quite okay with people holding onto their ignorance.  
 You are listening to Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. On one of our trips to Lucedale, it’s Christmastime. Main Street is decked out with holiday decorations. The trees are wrapped in golden lights. Festive, if you’re into that sort of thing. “For the record, I’d rather do door knocks.” We end up going to the Christmas parade. It’s a pretty typical small town parade. The high school band marches down the street. The color guard does its routines spinning around and twirling wide gold flags. We really didn’t have a purpose, just to get some color for the story of life in Lucedale.  
JJ:You’re going to ask questions.  
Al Letson:We’re just getting some ambi.  
JJ:You don’t want to interview anybody?  
Al Letson:I don’t think so. I was not enthused.  
JJ:Just so you know, I’m going to tease you this whole thing. Laugh a little, be in character. Al is grumpy pants and you’re not.  
Al Letson:No, we can do that. Grumpy pants too though.  
JJ:No, you can’t be grumpy pants. You’re forcing me to do this.  
Al Letson:I’ve never seen the streets of downtown Lucedale so full. Everybody was out.  
JJ:Streets are lined with people. Typical parade. A lot of little kids and chairs set up to watch the parade go by. Everybody’s in a really festive mood. We walked a good three blocks down the main street. I would definitely say that this crowd is vast majority overwhelmingly white. I think I’ve seen like five or six Black people since we walked here. But that could just be because of where we are. It may be that the Black residents gather in another area that we don’t know about or we’re not at.  
Al Letson:Trucks are pulling trailers that were turned into parade floats, little buggies with Christmas lights, music. It’s fun, right? Maybe for everyone else. The whole time I’m feeling tense, but I don’t want to say anything to JJ. Then a truck pulling a long trailer with people on the back comes down the street. Plywood fixed to it with a name written on it. The Ninth Mississippi Cavalry, Sons of Confederate Veterans. The words are framed by Confederate flags.  
 The men riding on the trailer are dressed in Confederate uniforms. They throw candy to the crowd. Seeing that, I tell JJ why I’m feeling so uncomfortable. “Can I tell you something? The number one reason why I didn’t want to go is because being in places like these that feel overwhelmingly white. Just to be honest, overwhelmingly white, everything that I’ve grown up with has always told me stay away from those crowds. Because of the stuff that I’ve had to deal with in my life, it’s not an irrational fear. It’s a fear that is built off of experience. You know what I mean?”  
JJ:What is the fear?  
Al Letson:That the crowd will turn on you. That suddenly you’ll be minding your own business and next thing you know someone is messing with you and I really don’t want to be messed with. I tell you about the time that white dudes surrounded my house? I tell JJ about the time when 20 or so young white men, some wearing hats or t-shirts with Confederate flags surrounded my house and threatened my family. I was 14 or so and I thought I was going to die. That wasn’t the first time or the last time that seeing that flag would represent someone’s hatred for me. “But it’s like those type of experiences that are like, it happens to you when you’re 14. It gets written into the foundation of who you are. It informs your fear response. Do you think that’s crazy?”  
JJ:No. Of course, anything like that would certainly would stay with you. It’s terrible.  
Al Letson:I wondered what Carrie Moles, the only Black elected official in George County, thought about those floats at the parade.  
Carrie Moles:Yeah, and what you probably didn’t notice at the parade with that particular float, if there was five or six Black kids standing here, they would not throw anything to them. They will wait until they get to the next group of white kids and throw the candy.  
Al Letson:How would you describe race relations in the George County area? We talked to a lot of white folks and they pretty much said there’s no racism here.  
Carrie Moles:I won’t say that there’s no racism. There’s pockets of racism in George County. But I don’t think they flaunt it. I don’t think they go out picking at people or wanting to say we hate Blacks. I just don’t think it’s like that.  
Al Letson:It’s complicated.  
Carrie Moles:Yeah.  
Al Letson:Do you think it’s changed? Because you’ve been here all your life. Have you seen a shift?  
Carrie Moles:Oh, now if you go from lifetime, I can go all the way back to not being able to drink water from the courthouse. You had a white fountain and Black fountain. You could not use the bathrooms inside the courthouse. I can go back that far.  
Al Letson:When Billy Joe died, her house became an occasional meeting place for the Johnson’s to meet with lawyers and activists. Did it feel like racial tension was building in the town around his death at that point?  
Carrie Moles:Yeah, definitely. Because it was a Black guy, white girl scenario. Everybody knew that her parents, the mom and the dad did not agree with their relationship. The thing that sticks out in my mind is, when they said he killed himself, for me, he was getting ready to get the highest award in the state of Mississippi. He had called his coach. The coach had talked with him. He had told him he was excited. He was all ready. He was ready to go. I think he even talked about what he was going to wear to get the presentation. Then you say, that don’t sound like somebody that want to kill himself. That stuck out for me. It was just so unbelievable. I just never believed that he killed himself. I never did.  
Al Letson:How do you feel that your constituents feel? Do you feel like most people believe that he was murdered or?  
Carrie Moles:I think most Black people do, yeah. I think most of the Black people believe he was murdered. I really do.  
Al Letson:It’s the gap, the distance between what the Black community can feel and what law enforcement and officers say in cases like Billy Joe’s. The district attorney Tony Lawrence proclaimed that there would be a thorough investigation. But that’s not what happened. Authorities failed to interview Billy Joe’s family, verify key statements or look into what was going on in Billy Joe’s life, including his interactions with police at the time of his death. They seemed to assume that anything a cop told them was true. The way they handled the investigation helped reinforce deep-seated concerns that the Black community can’t get justice.  
Curley Clark:When you hear the state Mississippi for African-Americans, it’s a lot of fear.  
Al Letson:Curley Clark first started working for the NAACP in 1980. At the time of our reporting, he was the organization’s vice president for Mississippi. When we first reached out to him about Billy Joe’s case, he told us right from the beginning, people were worried that there wouldn’t be a thorough investigation. In late 2019, JJ and I sat with Curley in a hotel room in Biloxi. He’s not necessarily a big man, but his presence fills the room.  
Curley Clark:They’ve heard about the racist past, and then we have all these incidents that are still occurring that shows that history repeats itself.  
Al Letson:You probably don’t remember this, but I would say two years ago, I called you out of the blue. I was looking into the Billy Joe Johnson case and I asked you a couple questions. We got on the phone and you told me about Billy Joe Johnson. You told me you definitely should look into it. But then you’re like, “But there’s all these other things.”  
Curley Clark:That is correct. Mississippi Justice.  
Al Letson:For people who are not from Mississippi, what is Mississippi Justice? What does it mean to you when you say that?  
Curley Clark:It means that they still feel like the South should have won the Civil War and that white people are superior to Black people. The culture reflects that, and also the laws for the state of Mississippi are slanted in that direction.  
Al Letson:JJ and I sit next to each other with Curley across from us. As he spoke, we could feel his righteous indignation.  
JJ:I worry that people are going to listen to this and feel… I’m talking to both of you now. That people are going to listen to this and feel really pessimistic and fatalistic about our country and about progress.  
Al Letson:A little transparency here. When JJ said that, I gave him a look because, well, the question just didn’t sit right with me. But I answered, “They should.” They should, because look, Mississippi. You still talking about people who have these views and unfortunately with the current environment of the country, people who are white nationalists, they’re being encouraged. It’s more prevalent in a place like Mississippi say, than other areas, but I think it’s everywhere. But it’s just more prevalent in Mississippi. People in Mississippi, it’s almost like a way of life here.  
JJ:I’m not asking for a rosy picture. But I do wonder for people that want equal justice and a better place, what do we say? What are we supposed to do?  
Curley Clark:It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s going to take probably years in order for Mississippi to come up to the realities of fair play, equal justice and things like that. Everything in Mississippi is geared toward white supremacy, white rule, white domination from the top all the way down to the bottom.  
Al Letson:After the interview, I was still thinking about everything Curley said. JJ and I walked back to our car mostly in silence, but on the ride back we talked about it. Okay, so what’d you think about the interview with Curley?  
JJ:It was good. It was slightly pessimistic at the end of it.  
Al Letson:That’s what I wanted to talk to you about though, is that I am just really tired of people asking Black folks to have hope and to make people feel better about the American situation, when everything in our history tells us that that is not the case. I especially am uncomfortable with it when we are asking people who are doing the work, like Curley Clark is out there doing the work to try to make this world a more just place.  
 In the work that I choose to do, I’m trying to make the world a better place in it and in the work that you do is the same reason. We’re both driven to the work that we do and the cases that we look at and pick, because we want this place to be more just for everybody. But the idea that somehow or another Black folks are supposed to have hope and Black folks are not supposed to be pessimistic, it just feels yucky to me. Because it’s like asking us to look at all the history of what’s happened in this country and ignore it.  
JJ:No, but I don’t disagree with you. I think that’s a misunderstanding of what I was asking. I wasn’t fishing for Black folk to fight.  
Al Letson:No, I don’t think you were. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m not saying that you were telling-  
JJ:Well, let me just… I am thinking about, I want to inspire. I don’t want to be an activist, but I hope our journalism helps to make this better world. In investigative reporting, we do a great job of finding bad guys. We don’t do a very good job about solutions.  
Al Letson:I think we look at it in two different ways in the sense of we’re both shooting for the same goal. I want to be really clear, that I didn’t think that you were telling Curley Clark to work harder. I felt like you were asking Curley and by extension me, why don’t we have hope and where’s the hope? My point is, the history of this country tells me, no, I can’t do that anymore. I would say that I think it’s beautiful that you want to inspire people. I do. I love that about you.  
 In certain ways, I do want to do work that inspires people, but really at this point in my life and where I am, I don’t want to inspire people. I want to infuriate people. I want to make work that make people burn so hard that they feel like this injustice is wrong and they want to go out and they want to tear it all down. I know that we’re talking about the same thing, but we’re talking about it in different ways. I know that you want to do the exact same thing.  
 That you want to inspire people to this higher cause. I think that that is useful and smart. But also I think just like in this series that we’re working on, I couldn’t do this without you and you couldn’t do this without me. The inspiration is definitely necessary, but man, I got so much anger. I got so much anger, and I’m so tired of hiding it. I’m so tired of pretending that it’s not there. I’m so tired of this idea that really chokes me up a little bit.  
 I’m sick of it, man. I’m sick of it. I’m burning dude. That’s why I’m doing this work is because I’m seeing how the world is, and it’s not just Mississippi, it’s the entire country. You see how it’s happening and I don’t have hope, but what I do have is this rage and it’s burning in me. That’s what I hope that we do. I hope that we piss people off so bad that they create change from that fire.  
JJ:That seems very real, and I completely affirm that. I think maybe I should have phrased the question a little bit better. Because that answer that you gave would’ve been the answer. I guess my point was, where do we go from here? It can be from anger and raw rage and outrage at injustice. It’s just where do we go from here? I’m not trying to do a hopey fairytale at all. It’s hard.  
Al Letson:Next week we have our final episode. We go back to George County to tell Billy Joe’s family everything we found.  
Speaker 22:I don’t understand. It’s going on 14 years and I’m tired. I’m tired. Justice is what we need. That’s what we fighting for.  
Al Letson:After years of trying to connect with Billy Joe’s ex-girlfriend, Hannah Hollinghead, she finally agrees to a recorded interview.  
Hannah Hollingh…:I’ve been scarred for life because of this whole thing. That’s why I stayed quiet so long. I don’t lay down at night without having to take medicine to help me sleep because that’s all I think about, the pure hell I’ve had to go through for almost 13 years.  
Al Letson:That’s next time on Reveal. Our show was reported and produced by Jonathan Jones and me, and edited by Kevin Sullivan. Michael I Schiller is our series producer. Steven Rascón, the assistant producer. Alaa Mostafa, the production manager. Nina Martin, the digital editor for the series. We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery, and Laurel Hennen Vigil. Thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski, and thanks to former Revealers Jen Chien, who helped launch the project; Alexis Hightower; Esther Kaplan; Christa Scharfenberg; Sumi Aggarwal and Sarah Mirk.
 Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and music and strategy. Our fact-checker is Rosemarie Ho, Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are the wonder twins, Zulema Cobb, and Steven, my brother from another Mother, Rascón. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo Arruda.  
 They had help from Claire C-note Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation. The Ford Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Park Foundation, and the Hellman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.  

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.

Jonathan Jones is a reporter and producer for Reveal. In his two decades in journalism, he has produced a series of award-winning investigations on topics ranging from eminent domain to problems in the fertility industry. He has covered conflict and human rights in 10 countries, including Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. In 2013, he teamed up with A.C. Thompson of ProPublica and PBS Frontline on a yearlong investigation into abuse and neglect at the largest assisted living company in the United States. In 2015, his exposé of Firestone's operations during the Liberian Civil War for ProPublica and PBS Frontline was awarded two News & Documentary Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism and outstanding research, as well as the top Investigative Reporters and Editors Award in the large multiplatform category. In 2018, Jones, along with colleagues at WNYC's Snap Judgment, won the Best Documentary Gold Award at the Third Coast International Audio Festival for "Counted: An Oakland Story," which profiled those lost to violence in Oakland, California, in 2017 and the impact on their communities.

Michael I Schiller is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. His Emmy Award-winning work spans animation, radio and documentary film.

“The Dead Unknown,” a video series he directed about the crisis of America's unidentified dead, earned a national News and Documentary Emmy Award, national Edward R. Murrow Award and national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award.

His 2015 animated documentary short film “The Box,” about youth solitary confinement, was honored with a video journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and a New Orleans Film Festival special jury prize, and it was nominated for a national News and Documentary Emmy for new approaches.

Schiller was one the producers of the pilot episode of the Peabody Award-winning Reveal radio show and podcast. He continues to regularly produce audio documentaries for the weekly public radio show, which airs on over 450 stations nationwide. Schiller is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Nina Martin (she/her) is the features editor for Reveal. She develops high-impact investigative reporting projects for Reveal’s digital and audio platforms and television and print partners. Previously, she was a reporter at ProPublica, covering sex and gender issues, and worked as an editor and/or reporter at San Francisco magazine, The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Health magazine and BabyCenter magazine. Her Lost Mothers project for ProPublica and NPR examining maternal mortality in the U.S. led to sweeping change to maternal health policy at the state and federal levels and won numerous awards. Martin is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is the production manager for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Michael Montgomery is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. He has led collaborations with the Associated Press, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Frontline, KQED and others.

Previously, Montgomery was a senior reporter at American Public Media, a special correspondent for the BBC and an associate producer with CBS News. He began his career in eastern Europe, covering the fall of communism and wars in former Yugoslavia for the Daily Telegraph and Los Angeles Times. His investigations into human rights abuses in the Balkans led to the arrest and conviction of Serbian and Albanian paramilitaries and creation of a new war crimes court based in The Hague. Montgomery’s honors include Murrow, Peabody, IRE, duPont, Third Coast and Overseas Press Club awards. He is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Melissa Lewis is a data reporter for Reveal. Prior to joining Reveal, she was a data editor at The Oregonian, a data engineer at Simple and a data analyst at Periscopic. She is an organizer for the Portland chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. Lewis is based in Oregon.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Victoria Baranetsky is general counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting, where she counsels reporters on newsgathering, libel, privacy, subpoenas, and other newsroom matters. Prior to CIR, Victoria worked at The New York Times, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Wikimedia Foundation. She also clerked on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Baranetsky holds degrees from Columbia Journalism School, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University. Currently, she teaches at Berkeley Law School as an adjunct professor and is a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center. She is barred in California, New York and New Jersey.

Zulema Cobb is an operations and audio production associate for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She's originally from Los Angeles County, where she was raised until moving to Oregon. Her interest in the well-being of families and children inspired her to pursue family services at the University of Oregon. Her diverse background includes banking, affordable housing, health care and education, where she helped develop a mentoring program for students. Cobb is passionate about animals and has fostered and rescued numerous dogs and cats. She frequently volunteers at animal shelters and overseas rescue missions. In her spare time, she channels her creative energy into photography, capturing memories for friends and family. Cobb is based in Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, three kids, three dogs and cat.