In recent months, the nation has witnessed how questionable police shootings of African-Americans can spark anger and unrest across a community. But long after the demonstrations end, the streets go quiet and the cameras leave, families of those killed have to find ways to cope with their loss. And that’s a private struggle that can last for decades and across generations.
Cordero Ducksworth has lived that struggle. He was 5 years old in 1962, when his father, Army Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr., was shot to death by William Kelly, a white Taylorsville, Miss., police officer.
Ducksworth was stationed at Fort Ritchie, Md., in the spring of 1962 when he was traveling home to Mississippi by bus. His wife, Melva, was in a local hospital owing to severe complications late in her pregnancy with their sixth child.
By the time the bus arrived on the night of April 9, Roman had fallen asleep and the driver called Kelly onto the bus to rouse him. Kelly instead arrested the serviceman for drunkenness and directed him to a patrol car across the street.
That’s when things became violent. Once Ducksworth and Kelly were off the bus, they started to tussle, and the officer drew his gun and fired twice — once into the ground and once through Ducksworth’s chest. Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr. was pronounced dead at the scene. He was just 27 years old.
Less than 24 hours later, a grand jury called the death “justifiable homicide,” and town officials would go on to tell local and national reporters that Ducksworth reached for Kelly’s gun. The allegation was repeated in official accounts up until the present, but it was never corroborated in any witness statements to military police criminal investigators. There were additional investigations by the FBI and the NAACP. But what led Kelly to arrest Ducksworth in the first place, who started the fight, and what moved Kelly to draw his gun and fire it twice have never been clearly established.
As the eldest child, Cordero was the only one of his siblings to attend the military funeral held for his father at the Cherry Grove Baptist Church cemetery in Taylorsville. “The only thing that I remember about that is the gunfire,” Cordero said, recounting the 16-gun salute given to his father. “I didn’t know what was going on or why we were even there. … It was just scary.”
As an integrated honor guard from Fort Rucker, Ala., buried Ducksworth, 2,000 mourners from Taylorsville and surrounding towns reportedly attended the funeral — mostly black, but some white. The family had been widely known and respected in the area. Roman’s father, Rome Ducksworth, owned hundreds of acres of land in Cherry Grove and was one of only 12 blacks who were registered to vote in Smith County.
But history is much of what Cordero knows of his father; his childhood memories are of times when Roman came home from his military posts for holidays and summer visits. “The only thing I do remember about my father is the gifts he would send home for Christmas,” Cordero said. “He sent home a pop gun. It had a cork on the end of it with a string attached to it. It was like a little rifle.” Roman also bought his kids a swing. “I used to have pictures of us playing on the swing set,” said Cordero.
He doesn’t remember his father’s voice or how it felt to be hugged by him or what his parents were like together, as a couple.
A family secret; a father’s absence
In 1963, Melva Ducksworth moved her family from Taylorsville to Joliet, Ill., where Melva lived until her death in 2010. Cordero still lives there today, in the duplex unit his mother bought at the end of the 1960s.
Throughout their childhood, Cordero and his siblings made regular visits to Taylorsville, but they were never told the truth. Melva had made the extended family swear to keep the way their father had died a secret. “We’d been to the graveyard, the church,” Cordero recalled. “No one had once came to us and even asked us about our father and why he was killed or how he was killed. … He was killed in the service, that’s what I thought.”
Life as a single mother was hard on Melva. She worked two jobs to support her family, a day shift as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home in nearby Naperville, and a night shift making bombshells at the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. “My mother is one of those type of ladies that [says] ‘I can do anything a man can do,’ ” Cordero said. “So naturally she was working on hardest part.” Family responsibilities increasingly fell to Cordero. “She relied on me to get my brothers and sisters up in the morning for school and dressed and everything,” he said. Then, after school, “she depended on me and my brother next to me to come home and help get things squared away with the family.”
After 15 years of that grueling schedule, Melva badly injured her back in the late 1970s. She lost her ability to work and had to get by on disability benefits and Roman’s military pension. Even with all the difficulties, she rarely mentioned Roman’s absence. “My mother kept us in activities, kept us going,” he said. “We didn’t have time to think about where was the other parent?”
Cordero sometimes felt his father’s absence at school. “You’re an athlete, everybody else’s dads were there. I’m the most valuable player, and you’re sitting there, and everybody else’s mothers and fathers are there watching them and congratulating them. Here’s my mom, and suddenly, you start thinking about where’s your dad?”
A surprising honor; a shocking truth
Cordero and his siblings didn’t learn how their father died until more than 25 years after the fact, when they were adults, with families of their own.
In 1989, Melva Ducksworth and each of her children received letters at their homes from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The civil rights organization wished to commemorate Roman Ducksworth as a civil rights martyr on a memorial to be designed by Maya Lin, famed creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Cordero was 33 at the time he received the letter. “I immediately called my mom,” he recalled. ” ‘Some people want to celebrate my father?’ ” Cordero asked. ” ‘For what? What did he do?’ ” He went to his mother’s house and she brought out an April 1962 Jet magazine that told the story and had a photo of his father on the undertaker’s table.
“Why didn’t we know about this?” he asked. “There was nothing really to tell you,” Cordero recalls his mother saying. She feared that any inkling of the truth about what happened to Roman would infect her children with racial hatred, and she explained that she did not want them to distrust whites who had no part in their father’s death.
“But what about the person who shot him?” Cordero demanded.
William Kelly was still alive, Melva confessed, but Cordero and his siblings were not to go back to Taylorsville to find him. She was afraid they’d seek revenge and get hurt or killed or that they could end up causing problems for family members still living in Mississippi.
Cordero was angry, but his problem was not with white people, he insists. “I had hatred in my heart because of what happened and the people that allowed [Kelly] to get away with it,” he said. “I had hatred for the system itself.” He was also skeptical of the idea that his father should be honored. “He didn’t do anything but get shot,” said Cordero. “That’s what makes him a hero?”
A search for answers
Nonetheless, Cordero and his brother Greg went down to Mississippi soon after the revelation, and questioned their aunts and uncles about their silence. The relatives just repeated what Melva had said: They wanted to keep the children safe, and that the best way was to keep the family secret.
“That’s a big secret,” Cordero reflected. “It’s like we were robbed of the story. Maybe we could have gotten involved with the FBI or trying to pursue the matter had we known when we were younger what happened.”
Cordero and Greg asked a relative to take them to see officer Kelly. “We just want to see the guy who shot my father,” the brothers said. “We couldn’t go down there and ask questions because that would start trouble,” Cordero recalled. “The rest of the family wouldn’t tell us either, wouldn’t tell us who he was or let us go down there and see him.” Cordero and his siblings never saw or met William Kelly. The former police officer died in 2004.
Despite their best efforts, the extended family did have to deal with the fallout from the killing. Within a couple of days of the slaying, Odell Ducksworth had lost his job pressing clothes at a local laundry. But that was just the beginning.
“One night we got up, we seen a bright light,” he recalled. “Cross was burning down the street.” Odell’s father moved him and his new wife to another town 30 miles away. Before the year was out, the family moved to Chicago, where Odell worked for Montgomery Ward for 25 years.
Odell and his wife did move back to Mississippi to retire in the 1990s, but not to Taylorsville. “I don’t go that way at all,” he said. “Memories come out. I go around Taylorsville.”
Cordero doesn’t have the kind of memories that haunt his cousin, but he remains troubled by the years of failed efforts to find justice in his father’s death. In 2008, the FBI reopened its previous probe of the Ducksworth case, along with 112 other racial slayings from that time under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which was designed to investigate race-related murders from the 1950s and ’60s. The bureau dropped the case in 2010, once it established that Kelly had died.
But prosecuting Kelly was never the point for Cordero. “I wanted to get it overturned because it was not a justified killing,” he said. “I wanted the state of Mississippi or the county where it happened to be penalized for it.” Part of the irony was rooted in his mother Melva’s success in insulating her children from the dangers that pervaded black life in Mississippi.
Cordero says that Southern racial turmoil was something they “knew” only from watching TV. “Then you find out so many years later that you actually are a part of that.”
Ben Greenberg is an investigative reporter and photographer based in Boston. He is a founding member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project. His work has appeared in USA Today, Colorlines, The American Prospect, The Clarion Ledger and elsewhere. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Ben on Twitter.
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