Byron De La Beckwith
|Byron De La Beckwith|
November 9, 1920|
Colusa, California, U.S.
|Died||January 21, 2001
Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
|Known for||The assassination of Medgar Evers|
|Spouse(s)||Mary Louise Williams (m. 1946–60)
Thelma Neff (m. 1982–2001) (his death)
Byron De La Beckwith, Jr. (November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and Klansman from Greenwood, Mississippi, who in 1994 was convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. Two previous trials in 1964 on this charge had resulted in hung juries. Seven years after being convicted of killing Evers, De La Beckwith died in 2001, while still in prison, at the age of 80.
De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California, the son of Susan Southworth Yerger and Byron De La Beckwith, Sr., who was the town's postmaster. His father died of pneumonia when he was five years old. One year later, De La Beckwith and his mother settled in Greenwood, Mississippi, to be near family. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 12 years old, and he was raised by his uncle William Greene Yerger and his wife.
In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater of World War II. He fought at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was shot in the waist during the Battle of Tarawa. De La Beckwith was honorably discharged in August 1945.
Marriage and family
After serving in the Marine Corps, Beckwith moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams. The couple returned to Mississippi, where they settled in his hometown of Greenwood. They had a son together. De La Beckwith and Williams divorced. He later married Thelma Lindsay Neff.
De La Beckwith worked as a salesman for most of his life, selling tobacco, fertilizer, wood stoves and a variety of other goods. He attended the Greenwood Episcopal Church of the Nativity. In 1954, following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, he became a member of a newly formed chapter of the White Citizens' Council. The group was formed in Mississippi that year to resist integration and maintain exclusion of most blacks from the political system in the state.
White supremacist activities
The White Citizens' Council was founded in 1954 following the United States Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that de jure public school segregation was unconstitutional. Begun in Mississippi, chapters arose in towns across the South to resist integration. Their members used a variety of economic tactics to suppress black activism and sustain segregation. The councils applied severe pressure through boycotts of black businesses, denial of loans and credit to African Americans, firing people from jobs, and other means. In Mississippi they prevented school integration until 1964.
De La Beckwith became a member of the White Citizens' Council; however, he thought that more direct action was needed. On June 12, 1963, he assassinated NAACP civil rights leader Medgar Evers shortly after the activist arrived home in Jackson.
The state twice prosecuted De La Beckwith for murder in 1964, but both trials ended with hung juries. The jurors were all male and all white. Mississippi had effectively disenfranchised black voters since 1890, and they were excluded from serving on juries, whose membership was limited to voters. During the second trial, the former Governor Ross Barnett (D) interrupted the trial to shake hands with Beckwith while Myrlie Evers, the widow of the activist, was testifying.
In the 1980s, the Jackson Clarion Ledger published reports on its investigation of the trial. It found that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, an agency supported by residents' taxes and working against civil rights while purportedly protecting the image of the state, had assisted De La Beckwith's attorneys in his second trial. It used state resources to investigate members of the jury pool during voir dire so the defense could try to pick the best jury.
In January 1966, De La Beckwith, along with a number of other members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about Klan activities. Although De La Beckwith gave his name when asked by the committee (other witnesses, such as Sam Bowers, invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to that question), he answered no other substantive questions. In the following years, Beckwith became a leader in the segregationist Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity Movement. The group was known for its hostility towards African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and foreigners.
According to Delmar Dennis, who acted as a key witness for the prosecution at the 1994 trial, De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several KKK rallies and at 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 Federal Bureau of Investigation that Beckwith planned to murder A. I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans-based B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, in retaliation for comments that Botnick had made about white southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance, the New Orleans Police Department officers stopped Beckwith in his car as he was traveling on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge to New Orleans. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with highlighted directions to Botnick's house, and a dynamite time bomb. On August 1, 1975, Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; he served nearly three years in the Angola Prison in Louisiana from May 1977 until he was paroled in January 1980. Just before entering prison to serve his sentence, Beckwith was ordained by Rev. Dewey "Buddy" Tucker as a minister in the Temple Memorial Baptist Church; a Christian Identity congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee.
1994 trial for Evers murder
In the 1980s, the reporting by the Jackson Clarion Ledger of the Beckwith trials stimulated a new investigation by the state and ultimately a third prosecution, based on new evidence. By this point, De La Beckwith was living in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. He was extradited to Mississippi for his trial at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson. The 1994 state trial was held before a jury consisting of eight blacks and four whites. They convicted De La Beckwith of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers. New evidence included testimony that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally and that he had boasted of the murder to others during the three decades since the crime had occurred. The physical evidence was essentially the same as that presented during the first two trials.
Beckwith appealed the guilty verdict, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1997. The court said that 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 imprisonment for first-degree murder without the possibility of parole. Although Mississippi had a death penalty in 1963, it was unenforceable. At the time, the law establishing the sentence had been declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Furman v. Georgia. Beckwith sought review in the US Supreme Court, but was denied certiorari.
On January 21, 2001, De La Beckwith died after he was transferred from prison to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He was 80 years old. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments for some time.
Representation in other media
Where Is the Voice Coming From? (1963), a short story by Eudora Welty, is one of the most significant works related to De La Beckwith's crime. Welty, who was from Jackson, Mississippi, later said:
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.
Welty's story was published in the July 6, 1963 issue of The New Yorker, soon after De La Beckwith's arrest. So accurate was her portrayal that the magazine changed several details in the story before publication for legal reasons.
- Byron De La Beckwith was the subject of the 1963 Bob Dylan song "Only a Pawn in Their Game", which deplores Evers's murder and the racial environment of the South.
- In 1991, the murder of Evers and first trials of Beckwith were the basis of the episode titled "Sweet, Sweet Blues", written by author William James Royce for the NBC television series In the Heat of the Night. In the episode, actor James Best plays a character based on De La Beckwith, an aging Klansman who appears to have gotten away with murder.
- The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods's performance as Beckwith was nominated for an Academy Award.
- In 2001, Bobby DeLaughter published his memoir of the case and trial, Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Trial.
- Chattanoogan: Widow Of Byron De La Beckwith Wins Jury
- New York Times: Town Distances Itself From Suspect In Evers' Case (December 21, 1990)
- Stout, David (January 23, 2001). "Byron De La Beckwith Dies; Killer of Medgar Evers Was 80". The New York Times. Retrieved April 28, 2010.
- Vollers, Maryanne (April 1995). Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-91485-7. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- "A Little Abnormal: The Life of Byron De La Beckwith". Time. July 5, 1963. Retrieved September 10, 2011.
- Russ, Martin (1975). Line of departure: Tarawa. Doubleday. pp. 69–70. ISBN 978-0-385-09669-0. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- Geoff Pevere, "The Last White Knight: A sharp documentary cuts to the heart of American racism," Toronto Globe & Mail, 31 January 2013 
- Dr. John Dittmer, "'Barbour is an Unreconstructed Southerner': Prof. John Dittmer on Mississippi Governor’s Praise of White Citizens’ Councils", December 22, 2010 video report by Democracy Now!. Retrieved November 21, 2011
- Lloyd, James B. (11-1-1995). "TENNESSEE, RACISM, AND THE NEW RIGHT: THE SECOND BECKWITH COLLECTION," The Library Development Review 1994-95: 3.
- De La Beckwith v. State, 707 So. 2d 547 (Miss. 1997), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 880 (1998).
- Welty, Eudora (1980). The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-618921-7. Retrieved September 9, 2011.
- Eudora Welty, "Preface", The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980).
- Ronald Bailey (1988). Remembering Medgar Evers -- For a New Generation. Heritage Publications. ISBN 978-0-942373-00-4. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- David T. Beito; Linda Royster Beito (2004). "T.R.M. Howard: Pragmatism over Strict Integrationist Ideology in the Mississippi Delta, 1942-1954". In Glenn Feldman. Before Brown: civil rights and white backlash in the modern South. University of Alabama Press. pp. 68–95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1431-6. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Jennie Brown (June 1, 1994). Medgar Evers. Holloway House Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87067-594-2. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- John Dittmer (May 1, 1995). Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06507-1. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Myrlie Evers; William Peters (journalist) (February 1, 1996). For Us, the Living. Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-0-87805-841-9. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- James E. Jackson (1963). At the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi: a tribute in tears and a thrust for freedom. Publisher's New Press. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Stephen Hunter (November 1, 1993). Point of Impact. Random House Digital, Inc. ISBN 978-0-553-56351-1. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Reed Massengill (January 1997). Portrait of a Racist: The Real Life of Byron De La Beckwith. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-16725-7. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Adam Nossiter (June 19, 2002). Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81162-3. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Charles M. Payne (March 16, 2007). I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25176-2. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- Randy Radic (December 14, 2009). "For God's Sake: The Assassination of Medgar Evers". CrimeMagazine.com. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- John R. Salter (November 1, 2011). Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism. UNP - Bison Books. ISBN 978-0-8032-3808-4. Retrieved September 12, 2011.
- R. W. Scott (1991). Glory in Conflict: A Saga of Byron De La Beckwith. Camark Press. Retrieved September 12, 2011.