Kidnapping and murder: Kyleen Burke on investigations in the Mississippi Delta

Throughout her childhood, in the small village of Port Jefferson, Long Island, Kyleen Burke (NUSL ’18) loved to play soccer and basketball. As she grew older and travelled to neighboring schools for games, she began to realize that while most of her teammates were white, many of her opponents were Black and brown.

“I was in a school system with one Black family,” Burke told CRRJ in a recent interview. “That stuff really seeps into your bones.”

It was on the pitch and the court where Burke, now a public defender at the Legal Aid Society of Suffolk County, Long Island, first started asking: “Why are things like this?”

After completing her undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, Burke worked for three years in Lynn at a reentry organization for young adults.

She was 21, helping people who were the same age as her but “who came from very different backgrounds,” she said.

I wanted to get more life experience, to broaden my perspective of the world and let those experiences inform my future decisions.

And so, Burke enrolled at Northeastern Law and took part in the CRRJ clinic during her 2L year, in 2016. She would remain committed to CRRJ’s efforts through her 3L year, and beyond her time at Northeastern Law.

At the start of the clinic, Burke was assigned two cases, both from Mississippi’s Delta Valley but separated by thirty years.

The first case she investigated turned out not to be a murder, she said, but a kidnapping in 1961, Batesville, Panola County, Mississippi.

Jerry Jefferson was working on the Nix plantation when he got into an argument with the straw boss, Robert Smith. Smith went to the plantation owner, Charles Nix, who, accompanied by a group of white men, tied up Jefferson, threw him into the back of their truck and severely beat him. They made sure to drive past Jefferson’s mother’s house so that she could see her son’s lifeless and bloody body, covered by a white sheet, laying in the truck bed.

A common sequence of events followed Jefferson’s kidnapping. Once it was discovered that he had survived his horrific beating, he fled with his family to Chicago, where they attempted to rebuild their lives.

Burke’s research in Jefferson’s case exposed her to Black newspapers for the first time, an avenue that she said, “was a totally enthralling way to relearn American history.”

Burke is still in contact with community leaders in Panola County, many of whom continue to engage in restorative justice work ongoing research and memorialization. “It feels like a really big loose end for me,” she said.

Burke’s second assigned case had a more tragic conclusion.

Elwood Higginbotham, a 29-year-old sharecropper and union leader, was killed on September 17, 1935 by a lynch mob in Oxford, Lafayette County, Mississippi. On trial for the murder of Glenn Roberts, a white planter, Higginbotham was being held in jail while the jury deliberated their verdict. Higginbotham’s attorney was arguing self-defense, and it is suspected that two jurors were seeking acquittal, when a mob of white men seized him from the jail. Higginbotham was shot multiple times and hung. He was the seventh and last known lynching victim in Lafayette County, Mississippi.

No arrests were ever made.

Burke first combed through the available documentation: death certificate, court documents, newspaper reports and Department of Justice records. She eventually found Higginbotham’s grandson on ancestry.com. Burke met Tyrone Higginbottom in Memphis and he connected her with other family members, and with the Oxford community who generously shared their memories and experiences. 

In the years and months that followed, Burke has travelled to Mississippi three times.

Read more about Higginbotham’s death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

On her first trip to Oxford in May 2017, she met living relatives and “saw the way this murder led to a family fleeing,” Burke said. Higginbotham’s surviving relatives left Lafayette County for Memphis, Tennessee, as “refugees in their own country,” she said.

“It was extremely humbling to see the direct connection this incident of racial violence had on this family having to be uprooted, losing property they had in Lafayette County, and having to start over again in a new place and the impact that has had on subsequent generations,” Burke said. “Seeing that connection first-hand has been informative and has definitely had a huge impact on my understanding of this country.”

Higginbotham's killing was reported across the country. Left to right: The Courier-News, New Jersey; The McComb Enterprise, Mississippi; and The Black Dispatch, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Higginbotham's killing was reported across the country. Left to right: The Courier-News, New Jersey; The McComb Enterprise, Mississippi; and The Black Dispatch, Oklahoma. Courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
Kyleen Burke (NUSL ’18) with Elwood Higgenbotham's grandson, and the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic, Northeastern Law, CRRJ
LEFT TO RIGHT: KYLEEN BURKE, TYRONE HIGGINBOTTOM, AND APRIL GRAYSON, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY & CAPACITY BUILDING THE ALLUVIAL COLLECTIVE

Her investigations produced an account of Higginbotham’s death that was previously unknown, publicly and by some surviving family members, or the community in Oxford. This inspired community groups, such as the Alluvial Collective (formerly the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation) and the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project (LCRP) to research victims of lynching in Lafayette County.

In October 2018, Burke returned to Oxford, Mississippi — with CRRJ Visiting Scholar, Professor Diane Harriford — to participate in a commemorative event honoring Higginbotham.

Held at the Second Baptist Church, Higginbotham’s decedents, Lafayette County public officials and community members, was well as representatives from CRRJ, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Alluvial Collective, were all in attendance.

That same year, Higginbotham’s case gained even more national attention, after it was covered by the New York Times, in an article titled Lynching’s Long Shadow.

Four years later, in 2022, Burke and Harriford returned to Oxford for a unique event, celebrating the lives of seven African-American men who were lynched in Lafayette County over a 50-year period, including Higginbotham.

Now, on the courthouse lawn outside Oxford City Hall there is marker memorializing these men, providing some degree of restorative justice for the victims’ families, said Burke.

Today, as a public defender, Burke said she sees society’s racial disparities through a much clearer lens. “My understanding of the dynamics playing out every day in court is directly influenced by CRRJ,” she said.

CRRJ gave her the opportunity to “look directly at the history I’d not been exposed to,” she said. “CRRJ was the highlight of my education.”

But her connection to the South is ever-present. “I feel very lucky to work collaboratively with clients and to hear peoples’ stories,” she said, “but the folks in Mississippi have become very precious to me and I care about doing right by them.”

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