Byron De La Beckwith
(November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist
and the convicted murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
During the 1960s the Ku Klux Klan was involved in
numerous acts of terrorism (as they would be described today); Evers's
assassination, on 12 June 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, was another
episode in the Klan's violent campaign against racial integration and
civil rights for African-Americans.
De La Beckwith was twice tried for murder in 1964.
Both trials ended in mistrials with all-white, all-male juries unable to
reach verdicts. A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight African-Americans
and 4 whites, convicted Beckwith of the murder of Evers.
The conviction was based, in part, on new evidence
that he had boasted of the killing at a Ku Klux Klan rally and to others
over the three decades after the crime. The physical evidence was
essentially the same as was used during the first two trials. Sentenced
to life imprisonment for murder, Byron De La Beckwith died in prison in
2001 of heart problems.
The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story
of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods portrayed Beckwith in an
Academy Award-nominated performance.
David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, T.R.M.
Howard: Pragmatism over Strict Integrationist Ideology in the
Mississippi Delta, 1942-1954 in Glenn Feldman, ed., Before Brown:
Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South (2004 book)
Brown, Jennie. Medgar Evers. Los Angeles: Melrose
Square Pub. Co., 1994.
John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for
Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994 book).
Evers, Myrlie B., and William Peters. For Us, the
Living. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967; Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Jackson, James E. At the funeral of Medgar Evers
in Jackson, Mississippi: A Tribute in Tears and a Thrust for Freedom.
New York: Publisher’s New Press, 1963.
Massengill, Reed. Portrait of a Racist: The Man
Who Killed Medgar Evers? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and
the Murder of Medgar Evers. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994; Da
Capo Press, 2002.
Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom:
The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995
Salter, John R. Jackson, Mississippi: An American
Chronicle of Struggle and Schism. Foreword by R. Edwin King, Jr.
Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1979.
Scott, R. W. Glory in Conflict: A Saga of Byron
De La Beckwith. Camden, Arkansas: Camark Press, 1991.
Remembering Medgar Evers—For a New Generation: A
Commemoration. Developed by the Civil Rights Research and
Documentation Project, Afro-American Studies Program, The University
of Mississippi. Oxford, MS: distributed by Heritage Publications in
cooperation with the Mississippi Network for Black History and
Vollers, Maryanne. Ghosts of Mississippi: The
Murder of Medgar Evers, The Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the
Haunting of the New South. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.
Byron De La Beckwith (November 9, 1920 –
January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and Klansman who was
convicted of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California to
Susan Southworth Yerger. When he was five years old, his father died
of pneumonia and De La Beckwith subsequently moved to the Sacramento
area. He later moved with his mother to Greenwood, Mississippi to be
near relatives. Beckwith's mother died of lung cancer when he was
12, and he was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, William
De La Beckwith enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps
in January 1942, and served as a machine gunner in the Pacific
theater. He saw action at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was wounded
during the Battle of Tarawa. For his service, Beckwith was awarded
the Presidential Unit Citation (twice), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign
Medal with three bronze service stars, Good Conduct Medal, World War
II Victory Medal, and also received the Purple Heart. Later claims
that Beckwith was awarded the Silver Star are unfounded, according
to official Marine Corps records. He was discharged in January 1946.
After serving in the Marine Corps, Beckwith moved to
Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams. Beckwith then
settled in Greenwood with his wife, and worked as a tobacco and
fertilizer salesman for 10 years. He attended the Greenwood Episcopal
Church of the Nativity and became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
During the 1960s, the Klan was involved in
numerous acts of violence and terrorism. The assassination of Medgar
Evers, on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, was another episode
in the Klan's violent campaign against racial integration and civil
rights for African-Americans. De La Beckwith was twice tried for
murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with the all-white
jury unable to reach a verdict. In the second trial, former Governor
Ross Barnett interrupted the proceedings while Myrlie Evers was
testifying to shake hands with Beckwith.
In the following years, he became a leader in the
pro-segregationist Phineas Priesthood, a branch of the white
supremacist Christian Identity Movement; a cause known for its
espousing of hostility towards not only blacks, but also Jews,
Catholics, and foreign-born American citizens specifically, as well
as the United States Federal Government. According to Delmar Dennis
(key witness for the prosecution at his 1994 trial), De La Beckwith
boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several Ku Klux
Klan rallies and other similar gatherings in the years following his
mistrials. In 1967, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's
nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi.
In 1973, informants alerted the FBI of Beckwith's
plans to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans based B'nai
Brith Anti-Defamation League, for comments Botnick had made about
southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance,
De La Beckwith's car was stopped by New Orleans police as he crossed
over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge. Among the contents of his
vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with directions to Botnick's
house highlighted, and a dynamite time bomb.
On August 1, 1975 Beckwith was convicted of
conspiracy to commit murder, serving three years in Angola Prison which
he served from May 1977 until January 1980.
Imprisonment for Evers murder
A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight
African-American and four white jurors, ended with Beckwith being
convicted of first-degree murder, for killing Medgar Evers. The
conviction was based on new evidence proving that he had boasted of
the murder at a Klan rally and to others over the three decades
after the crime. The physical evidence was essentially the same as
was used during the first two trials. The guilty verdict was
subsequently appealed, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the
conviction in 1997. The court said the 31-year lapse between the
murder and De La Beckwith's conviction did not deny him a fair trial.
He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole
for first-degree murder. The attorneys for the prosecution, Bobby
DeLaughter and Ed Peters, were later disbarred for their involvement
in the Dickie Scruggs bribery case.
He died on January 21, 2001 at the University of
Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He had suffered
from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments.
The most important fictional portrayal of Evers'
murderer was written immediately after the event, before De La
Beckwith was captured, by the Jackson, Mississippi native Eudora
Welty: "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" (1963). As Welty said later,
she said to herself, "Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his
identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I
ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on
such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story--my fiction--in
the first person: about that character's point of view" (Collected
Stories of Eudora Welty, xi). Welty's story was published in
The New Yorker soon after de la Beckwith's arrest. So accurate
was her portrayal that several details in the fiction had to be
changed before publication for legal reasons. Welty casts her
dramatic monologue of white hate, fear, and confusion--ironically--as
a sort of blues song sung by the murderer as he tries to use
violence to keep blacks from rising: "sing a-down, down, down, down.
Down." are the story's last words. Welty was the first living writer
honored by inclusion in the Library of America series collecting the
works of great American writers.
Byron De La Beckwith was the subject of the 1963 Bob
Dylan song "Only a Pawn in Their Game", which deplores Evers' murder and
the racist element in "The South" of that time, while dismissing De La
Beckwith himself as merely a product of his environment.
The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the
story of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods portrayed De La Beckwith
in an Academy Award-nominated performance. The prosecution lawyer Robert
DeLaughter wrote a first person narrative article titled "Mississippi
Justice" published in Reader's Digest.
In the episode of Mr. Show, "Show Me Your
Weenis," there's a fictional TV series named "Byron De La Beckwith VII:
Racist in the Year 3000." The character is presumably a descendent of
Byron De La Beckwith.
Medgar Evers Assassin Dies
JACKSON, Mississippi, Jan.
Byron De La Beckwith, convicted assassin of civil
rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and one of the most notorious and
recalcitrant white supremacists of that era, died after he was
transferred from his jail cell to a hospital, reports CBS News
Correspondent Christopher Glenn.
Beckwith was 80.
Barbara Austin, a hospital spokeswoman, said
Beckwith entered University Medical Center at 2:07 p.m. CDT Sunday.
She could not elaborate on his ailment or the cause of death.
"It's a matter for the coroner's office to
determine," she said.
Evers, a 37-year-old field secretary for the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who
pushed for an end to segregation, had stepped out of his car when he
was shot in the back on June 12, 1963. He was walking to his house
with an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts.
Beckwith, a white supremacist, was convicted at a
third trial in 1994 after two mistrials three decades earlier. After
his conviction, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
His fingerprint was found on a deer rifle used to
kill Evers. It was abandoned in the lot across the street. But the
former fertilizer salesman insisted he was 90 miles (145 kilometers)
away in Greenwood when Evers was murdered.
Two all-white juries deadlocked in trials in
1964. Twelve years ago, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, asked
for the case to be reopened, and Hinds County District Attorney
Bobby DeLaughter agreed.
"At the very beginning ... we didn't have
anything," DeLaughter said. "The DA's file was nowhere to be found.
We did not have the benefit of a trial transcript to know who the
witnesses were. None of the evidence had been retained by the court."
But DeLaughter and his officers stumbled across
new evidence, including negatives from the crime scene and new
witnesses who testified Beckwith had bragged to them "about beating
Beckwith was arrested Dec. 17, 1990, and when he
stood in front of a new jury in 1994, he was 74 years old.
His prosecutors were armed with new evidence and
a 127-page document claiming 21 errors were made in Beckwith's
original trial. Also, eight of the 12 jurors were black.
Beckwith was found guilty of murder and the
Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1997.
Beckwith is survived by his wife and a son.
Medgar Willy Evers (July 2, 1925 – June
12, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist from
Mississippi who was murdered by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of
the Ku Klux Klan.
Medgar Evers was born on July 2, 1925 in Decatur,
Mississippi. In 1943, Evers, then 17, dropped out of high school to
enlist in the army with his older brother Charlie. Evers fought in
the European Theatre of WWII and was honorably discharged in 1945 as
a Sergeant. In 1946, having returned to his hometown, Evers, along
with his brother and four friends, registered to vote in a local
election. On voting day, however, local white citizens used
intimidation to prevent Evers and the others from casting their
votes. He recounts this moment in his autobiography:
"When we got to the courthouse, the clerk said he
wanted to talk with us. When we got into his office, some 15 or 20
armed white men surged in behind us, men I had grown up with, had
played with. We split up and went home. Around town, Negroes said we
had been whipped, beaten up and run out of town. Well, in a way we
were whipped, I guess, but I made up my mind then that it would not
be like that again—at least not for me. I was committed, in a way,
to change things."
In 1948, Evers enrolled at Alcorn State
University, majoring in business administration. In college he was
on the debate team, played football and ran track, sang in the
school choir and served as president of his junior class.
He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on December
24, 1951, and completed work on his degree the following year. The
couple moved to Mound Bayou, MS, where T.R.M. Howard had hired him
to sell insurance for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company.
Howard was also the president of the Regional Council of Negro
Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization.
Involvement in the RCNL gave Evers crucial training in activism. He
helped to organize the RCNL's boycott of service stations that
denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed
bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use
the Restroom." Along with his brother, Charles Evers, he also
attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952
and 1954 which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.
Evers applied to the then-segregated University
of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was
rejected, Evers became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate
the school, a case aided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown
v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 that segregation was
He was involved in a boycott campaign against
white merchants and was instrumental in eventually desegregating the
University of Mississippi when that institution was finally forced
to enroll James Meredith in 1962.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found
himself the target of a number of threats. His public investigations
into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde
Kennard made him a prominent black leader and therefore vulnerable
to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the
carport of his home. Five days before his death, Evers was nearly
run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.
Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first
week of June 1963. A local television station granted Evers time for
a short speech, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the
goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on
Evers' life increased.
On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway
after just returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging
from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go,"
Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from an Enfield
1917.303 rifle that ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet
before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later.
Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy's
speech on national television in support of civil rights.
Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19
in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military
honors in front of a crowd of more than three thousand people. It
was the largest funeral at Arlington since the interment of John
Foster Dulles, former U.S. Secretary of State in 1959. The past
chairman of the American Veterans' Committee, Mickey Levine, said at
the services, "No soldier in this field has fought more courageously,
more heroically than Medgar Evers."
On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a
fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Ku
Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers' murder. During the course of his
first trial in 1964, De La Beckwith was visited by former
Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General
Edwin A. Walker.
All-white juries twice that year deadlocked on De
La Beckwith's guilt.
The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar.
Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963
song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" about Evers and his assassination.
The song's lyrics included: "Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the
bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king." Nina Simone took
up the topic in her song "Mississippi Goddam". Phil Ochs wrote the
songs "The Ballad of Medgar Evers" and "Another Country" in response
to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the
haunting "Ballad of Medgar Evers." Eudora Welty's short story "Where
is the Voice Coming From," in which the speaker is the imagined
assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker.
In 1965, Jackson C. Frank included the lyrics "But
there aren't words to bring back Evers" in his tribute to the Civil
Rights Movement, "Don't Look Back," found on his only, self-titled,
album. Malvina Reynolds mentioned "the shot in Evers' back" in her
song "It Isn't Nice". More recently, rapper Immortal Technique asks
if a diamond is "worth the blood of Malcolm and Medgar Evers?" in
the song "Crossing the Boundary". The Rza sang on "I Can't Go to
Sleep" by Wu-Tang Clan, "Medgar took one to the back for integrating
In 1994, thirty years after the two previous
trials had failed to reach a verdict, Beckwith was again brought to
trial based on new evidence, and Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as
the attorney. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from
his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly good state
of preservation as a result of embalming. Beckwith was convicted of
murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for the
three decades following the killing. Beckwith appealed
unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January 2001.
Evers' legacy has been kept alive in a variety of
ways. Minrose Gwin notes that after his death, Medgar Evers was
memorialized by the authors Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Margaret
Walker and Anne Moody. In 1970, Medgar Evers College was established
in Brooklyn, New York as part of the City University of New York. In
1983, a made-for-television movie, For Us the Living: The Medgar
Evers Story starring Howard Rollins Jr. was aired, celebrating the
life and career of Medgar Evers. On June 28, 1992, the city of
Jackson, MS erected a statue in honor of Evers. All of Delta Drive (part
of U.S. Highway 49) in Jackson was renamed in Evers' honor. In
December 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the
city's airport to Jackson-Evers International Airport in honor of
The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi directed by
Rob Reiner tells the story of the 1994 retrial of Beckwith, in which
prosecutor Robert DeLaughter of the District Attorney's office
secured a conviction. Beckwith and DeLaughter were played by James
Woods and Alec Baldwin, respectively; Whoopi Goldberg played Myrlie
Evers' widow, Myrlie, became a noted activist in
her own right later in life, eventually serving as chair of the
NAACP. Medgar's brother Charles returned to Jackson in July 1963 and
served briefly in his slain brother's place. Charles Evers remained
involved in Mississippi Civil Rights for years to come. He resides
Early in 2007, comedian Chris Rock appeared as a
guest on Real Time with Bill Maher. Regarding a recent incident in
which comedian Michael Richards had repeatedly called an African
American man in the audience "nigger" during a performance, Bill
Maher asked Chris Rock if Rock considered Richards racist. Rock
responded "He stood up for two minutes and shouted 'nigger'! What do
you have to do? Shoot Medgar Evers?"