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Byron De La Beckwith (November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an Americanmarker white supremacist and Klansman who was convicted of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Early life

De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, Californiamarker to Susan Southworth Yerger. When he was five years old, his father died of pnuemonia and De La Beckwith subsequently moved to the Sacramentomarker area. He later moved with his mother to Greenwood, Mississippimarker 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 Greene Yerger.

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 Guadalcanalmarker and was wounded during the Battle of Tarawamarker. 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 Islandmarker, 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.

KKK activities

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, Mississippimarker, 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 FBImarker of Beckwith's plans to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleansmarker 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 Orleansmarker police as he crossed over the Lake Pontchartrain Causewaymarker 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. [33474], [33475]

He died on January 21, 2001 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippimarker. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments. The court later voted to vacate his conviction. [33476]

Fictional portrayals

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.

References

  • 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), 68-95.
  • 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.
  • Hunter, Stephen. "Point of Impact", Bantam Books, 1993, Pg. 183.
  • 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 book).
  • 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 Heritage, 1988.
  • 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.
  • Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.
  • The New York Times, December 23, 1997


External links



Notes

  1. A Little Abnormal: The Life of Byron De La Beckwith
  2. Byron De La Beckwith Dies; Killer of Medgar Evers Was 80



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