The Long and Slow Road To Justice in Mississippi

25 years ago today, February 5, 1994,  Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted for the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Evers was killed on June 12, 1963.  It was a seminal  moment in the American civil rights movement.

Evers was born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi.

When he was fourteen, Evers witnessed a black man being drug behind the back of a truck through his hometown. The man was later hanged. He had been accused of the crime of insulting a white woman.  Every day when Evers walked to school, he had to walk by a puddle of the man’s bloody clothes which were left there to serve as a warning to other African Americans.

Evers left high school at the age of 17 so he could volunteer for the United States Army. He rose to the rank of sergeant in the still segregated military.   He was part of the post D-day invasion of Normandy, bravely serving in France and Germany until his honorable discharge in 1946.

When he returned to the United States, he went to register to vote.  However when he showed up at the voting station, in his army uniform, he was blocked from entering by an angry mob of whites.

He  vowed to fight for his country at home, just like he had in Europe. He was denied entrance to the University of Mississippi, so he enrolled at Alcorn State. While in college he began organizing and working for local chapters of the N.A.A.C.P.  He then was appointed the organization’s first field secretary in Mississippi.  Evers moved with his wife and children to Jackson, and began leading protests to fight the state’s Jim Crow culture and legal system.  He massively increased voter registration amongst African Americans in Mississippi. He helped investigate the murder of Emmitt Till.   He was instrumental in helping James Meredith break the color barrier at the University of Mississippi in 1962, making him the frequent target of harassment and death threats.

In late May of 1963, someone threw a firebomb into the carport of his home.  A week and a half later, he was injured when someone tried to run him over with their car as he was leaving the N.A.A.C.P. office in Jackson.

On June 12, 1963 President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation to announce he that he was going to press forward with a civil rights bill, and that racism had no place in our country. This was a response to the fire hoses and dogs being used to attack children in Birmingham, Alabama two days earlier.

Hours after Kennedy’s speech, Medgar Evers was shot and killed walking into his house from a distance by a high powered rifle. He was carrying shirts that said, “Jim Crow Must Go.” to be passed out the next day.  A bullet had struck him in the back and tore through his chest.  He managed to drag himself to the door, where his wife would find him mortally wounded.  His three young children had hidden in the bathtub when they heard the gunshot, but then rushed to their mother’s side when they heard her scream.  There, they found their father bleeding profusely, and near death.

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Medgar Evers and family
Photo Credit: N.P.R.

When Medgars’ wife Myrlie drove him to the hospital in Jackson, Mississippi that night, he was denied entrance and treatment for 50 minutes because that hospital did not treat blacks.

Megar Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Photo Credit: Clarion Ledger

Byron De La Beckwith was a fertilizer salesman and an active leader in the Ku Klux Klan as well as an extremist group known as the “White Citizens Council”, which had formed after the Brown V. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954.  He had bragged about the murder to several people. He was put on trial twice in 1963 for the murder.  A rifle was produced with his fingerprints on it.  Witnesses described seeing him in the area before and after the murder. Another witness testified about seeing a car matching the description of his in the area.

Two police officers testified that they had seen De La Beckwith 90 miles away at the time of the murder.  The Governor of Mississippi actually made an appearance at the trial.  While Medgar Evers’ widow Myrlie was testifying, he walked up to the defense table to shake De La Beckwith’s hand!  Two trials resulted in hung juries.

Prosecutors decided to stop pursuit of a conviction, as it appeared it would be impossible.  At the time, no white man had ever been convicted of murdering a black man in Mississippi.

De La Beckwith continued on with his life of hatred and bigotry as a free man for three decades.  He often spoke publicly of his disdain for blacks, Jews, and Roman Catholics.  In 1973, he was pulled over by police road block in New Orleans.  A bomb was found in the back seat. It was intended to be used at the home of the leader of the anti-defamation league, B’nai B’rith.  De La Beckwith was acquitted on federal charges, but found guilty in a Louisiana court of transporting explosives without a permit. He spent several years in prison.  At one point he became ill, but refused aid from a nurse because she was African American.

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Byron De La Beckwith at his home in Tennessee
Photo Credit: A.P.

Myrlie Evers never gave up in her pursuit of a conviction for the muderer of her husband.  When evidence of jury tampering was revealed in 1989, she pushed the F.B.I. to reopen the case.  They did, and in 1989 De La Beckwith was indicted again for the murder of Medgar Evers.  Several years of legal maneuvering followed, but the third trial began in 1994 in the same courtroom as the trials that occurred thirty years earlier.

The accused wore a confederate flag button on his lapel for the trial, and appeared dazed and confused about what was happening.  The rifle with De La Beckwith’s fingerprints was presented again, as well as witnesses who testified of his bragging about the murder to them.  This time, the jury of eight African Americans and four whites returned a guilty verdict and a sentence of imprisonment for life.  Byron De La Beckwith died in prison in January of 2001, at the age of 80.

Medgar Evers spent his life fighting for this country outside it, and inside it.  It is a shame that country didn’t treat him better.

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