Ashleigh Parker was in line to vote on Tuesday when she noticed a man in front of her wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag, the image of a noose, and the words “Mississippi Justice.”
“It was racist and terrible and I hoped no one saw it. I wish I had said something but I held my tongue because I didn’t want to give him any attention,” she later wrote in a Facebook post about what she saw.
Parker watched the man walk over to what she said was a voting machine, and at that moment another voter who was disgusted by what they saw began taking photos.
“When I saw him I wanted to say something, but my mom was like, ‘Don’t say anything,’ so I took a picture and posted it on Facebook,” Rashaud told BuzzFeed News by phone. (He asked not to be identified by his full name because of safety concerns. He later deleted his Facebook post.)
Rashaud’s post quickly began attracting comments and shares. He also shared the photo with a friend who posted it on Twitter, where it quickly went viral after the friend added an incorrect claim that the man in the shirt was a poll worker. (Rashaud told BuzzFeed News he initially thought the man worked at the polling station, but later said he was mistaken. Parker also confirmed the man was a voter.)
Rashaud said it was shocking to see someone wearing that shirt, especially in a polling station.
“It’s crazy — they try to say the rebel flag is not racist, but to have a noose on the rebel flag, it’s like, what are you trying to say?” Rashaud said. “It just shocks me that people feel it’s OK to come out in public like this. I was just kind of shook up.”
As the photo spread, people began identifying the man as Clayton John Hickey, a registered nurse who works at a hospital in Memphis and lives in Olive Branch, Mississippi, where the photo was taken. Public records confirm Hickey is an RN, and that he lives in Olive Branch.
BuzzFeed News spoke to three people who said they recognized Hickey in the photo. One is a former coworker, one currently works with Hickey at the same hospital, and another interacted with Hickey because he works for the fire department in Memphis.
“I work for the Fire Department and I have dropped off several patients with him,” the man told BuzzFeed News in a Facebook message. (He asked to not be identified due to the fact that he could face discipline for speaking to the media without permission.)
“I wasn’t at the polling place, but I know for certain that’s him,” said a former coworker, who asked not to be named due to concerns that it could affect her employment.
The person who said they currently work with Hickey said he’s employed at Regional One Health. The hospital confirmed this to BuzzFeed News, and said it was aware of the photo and was investigating. A day later, it announced on Twitter that Hickey had been fired.
"As of today, November 8, 2018, we have completed our investigation and what we learned led to the termination of the employee in question. Regional One Health holds employees to a high standard," read one tweet.
The hospital said it's committed to "fostering a safe and protected work and care environment for all. Behaviors contrary to these principles are unacceptable and will not be tolerated."
Prior to becoming a nurse, Hickey was a Memphis police officer. He left that job after being arrested in Olive Branch in 2010 and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was found with a 17-year-old girl and open alcohol. (It’s unclear what the outcome of the case was.)
Though a few old news articles can be found about that incident, Hickey appears to have made a concerted effort in 2011 to place positive press releases, slideshows, and other references to himself on multiple websites. This is a common approach used by people to improve their online reputation.
Some press release and slideshow titles include, “Clayton Hickey Is A Brave Person,” “Clayton Hickey Memphis Police – Awarded Employee Of The Month In 2000,” “Clayton Hickey Memphis Police Is A Black Belt Winner,” and “Clayton Hickey Memphis Police Loves Sports.”
There’s also a Clayton Hickey Twitter account that a former coworker of his shared with BuzzFeed News, and which was used to promote links to the reputation-enhancing articles.
Hickey did not respond to two emails sent to an an address found online for him, or to a phone message left at a number he previously listed in a domain name registration. (Phone numbers listed for him in public records were disconnected.)
In her Facebook post, Parker said her two sons were with her at the polling station when she saw the shirt.
“We talked about it on the way home, my big boys saw it and were equally offended,” she said. “Heartbreaking and not a true depiction of our community. Now there’s a picture of him going viral on twitter and of course Mississippi is taking some big hits because of it.”
She added, “He doesn’t speak for me, my family or my friends. I’m disgusted.”
Rashaud said seeing the shirt in a polling station helped crystalize how important it was for him and other black people to cast a ballot.
“That’s the reason why we need to get out and vote. That’s my main message.”
Added information about Hickey being fired from Regional One Health.