Reading the letter, Eddie Carthan could not help feeling he was the victim of a cruel joke.
In four curt paragraphs, the state auditor of Mississippi gave the 69-year-old civil rights leader and Holmes County supervisor 30 days to repay all the money he earned as an elected official over the last 3½ years: $154,990.46 in salary, $28,498.64 in interest and $695.02 in staff fees.
“This sum represents salary payments received by you in violation of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi, prohibiting you, as a convicted felon, from holding the office of county supervisor,” the letter said.
Carthan is not a rich man, and it is no secret that he is a convicted felon.
More than 40 years ago, Carthan made national headlines when he won an election in the tiny town of Tchula to become the first black mayor in the Mississippi Delta since Reconstruction. He then went up against the town’s white elite in an extraordinary battle that ended with him being convicted of felony assault and tried for the murder of one of his political rivals.
Carthan was eventually acquitted of murder, but he served prison time on the lesser felony charge of assaulting a police officer. He insists he was framed.
Many decades later, his conviction did not stop him from winning his 2015 election to the Holmes County Board of Supervisors.
“Everybody knew about it,” Carthan said. “I’ve been in office all this time. I’ve run for office several times, and all of a sudden this comes up? This is pretty much similar to what they did back in the day. This is a plot against me.”
Except this time, the man Carthan says is conspiring to undermine him and push him out of office is black. Willie Townsend lost his supervisor seat to Carthan in 2015.
“He knows he can’t beat me at the polls,” Carthan said.
Townsend, 61, who is running for supervisor again this year, said there was no nefarious plot. He has long openly questioned whether Carthan was legally qualified for office.
“This is not a conspiracy,” Townsend said. “I don’t have a problem with him running if he’s eligible. But the law is the law.”
The attorney general’s office declined to comment, but a public information officer referenced Section 44 of the Mississippi Constitution, which states that elected offices are off-limits to anybody convicted of a felony or an “infamous crime.”
State officials have informed Carthan he is not supposed to hold office, but he has yet to receive any demand to vacate his position.
“Until I am pushed or forced out, I’m going to continue to serve,” Carthan said. “It’s a challenge, but this has been a long life of challenges for me.”
A distant relative of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly offending a white woman, Carthan grew up in a shack on his father’s farm near Tchula.
Elected mayor when he was 28, he vowed to bring change to the heavily segregated town.
“One side was dirt roads and raggedy houses, many without plumbing,” he said. “On the other side, there were paved streets with beautiful homes, manicured lawns, tennis courts, swimming pools. My job was to bring the community to a level field. And we did that.”
As mayor, Carthan began to implement an ambitious program, paving roads, putting in a sewer system, building a public library, day-care center, free health clinic and nursing home.
But his changes rankled many white residents and Carthan feuded with the multiracial board of aldermen.
Three years into his term, tension came to a head when the board overruled his appointment of a black police chief and installed a white acting chief named Jim Andrews.
Carthan went to City Hall with a group of men armed with pistols and shotguns and asked Andrews to leave. There was a tussle, and a black police officer accused Carthan of striking him — a charge Carthan denied.
Later, the officer suggested Carthan had been set up. But in 1981, Carthan was convicted of simple assault of a police officer, a felony. He was forced to resign as mayor and was sentenced to three years in prison.
A few months later, he was charged with fraud after two men went to a bank using what they claimed was his signature to secure a loan. The men admitted they signed Carthan’s name, but later struck a deal that they would face reduced charges if they testified against Carthan. He was convicted and sentenced to three more years.
Then, while Carthan languished in jail, he was charged with the murder of a political enemy, Roosevelt Granderson, who was shot execution-style in a convenience store. State prosecutors gave the two men charged with the crime a deal to testify that Carthan hired them to kill Granderson.
Carthan pleaded not guilty, again insisting that he had been framed. After a tense 2½-week trial, the all-black jury found Carthan not guilty. He returned to prison to serve his remaining time.
His assault sentence was eventually suspended by then-Gov. William Winter. Carthan then went to federal jail for the fraud charge, until the state’s attorney general intervened and let him out on time served. In total, he spent 15 months in jail.
After his release, Carthan ran his father’s farm and then a hardware store and car wash. He served as a pastor of Tchula’s Good Samaritan Ecumenical Church. But he still yearned to bring about political change.
His former defense attorney told him he was legally qualified to run for public office, he said, and so he launched several unsuccessful bids for state Senate and Tchula mayor.
In 2015, Carthan decided to run for the Holmes County Board of Supervisors. Though the region had gone through sweeping political change since he was mayor, its rural economy was stagnating.
Tchula is one of the poorest towns in the nation, with a median household income of $14,412. More than 60% of the town’s residents live in poverty.
Carthan vowed to revitalize the area, bringing in new factories and industries.
At the same time, Townsend said he raised questions about whether Carthan was legally fit to serve, telling local officials he was not eligible to run because he was a convicted felon.
“They didn’t do anything,” Townsend said. “He said he didn’t have a criminal record and that he had been pardoned. But if he said he was pardoned, the people were misled.”
After Carthan’s victory, Townsend said, he took the matter up with the attorney general’s office. In fall 2017, state investigators descended on the county courthouse to rummage through Carthan’s criminal files.
“My first thought was, ‘Here we go again,’” Carthan said. “It brings back bad memories for me.”
But Carthan did not receive any updates and assumed the investigation had been dropped — until this month, a few weeks after the death of his wife, when he got a call from the state auditor’s office.
Legal experts said Carthan’s case is highly unusual: The issue of fitness for office typically comes up during, not after, a political campaign. Ronald J. Rychlak, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, said the state’s demand for a return of salary seemed like an excessively strict application of the law.
“If he did the work, it is going to be a hard thing for the government to reclaim that salary,” he said.
In any case, Carthan said he did not have the $184,184.12 he is being asked to return.
Carthan insists the investigation is politically motivated. Why else, he asked, would the letter be delivered by special agents after the March deadline passed for candidates to qualify for this year’s county elections?
Even though his political rival is black, Carthan said he represented the same forces that have long tried to undermine Mississippi’s more progressive leaders.
“The system has always been able to use members of the black community to tear down black leadership,” he said. “That’s their way of throwing a rock and hiding the hand.”
Still, Carthan prays that somehow he will go on to bring more change to Holmes County.
“God has allowed me to carry the cross of Jesus that I have been carrying ever since I was a boy,” he said. “When I’m rejected, I just see it as a part of God’s plan.... I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s a good that’s behind all of this.”