For God’s Sake: The Assassination of Medgar Evers

Dec 14, 2009 - by Randy Radic

Dec 14, 2009

 

Bryan de la Beckwith

It would take 31-years to bring white supremacist Bryan de la Beckwith to justice for the assassination of Medgar Evers.

by Randy Radic

His name was Byron de la Beckwith, but his friends called him “Delay.”  A descendant of Southern aristocracy, Byron de la Beckwith was born in Colusa, California in 1920.  Delay was only 5 when his father died.  The official cause of death was listed as “pneumonia and alcoholism.”  After the funeral, Delay’s mother took him back home to Greenwood, Mississippi. 

Delay’s mother was a Yerger, which meant she was a blue blood, descended from one of the South’s elite families.  Susan Southworth Yerger was her given name.  And in the glory days of the Confederacy, the Yergers moved only in the best social circles.  Jefferson Davis’s wife was counted among the closest friends of the Yerger family.

Unfortunately, Delay’s mother suffered from what were politely called mental ailments.  She was hospitalized frequently.  And in the end, when Delay was 12 years old, she died of lung cancer at age 47.

Delay moved in with his uncle, William Yerger, who occupied the family’s estate, which had seen better days and had had quite a few less good days since then.  And so had Uncle William, who was a little off-center.  He spent most of his time fishing for catfish.  According to Time magazine, more often than not, the catfish ended up in a dresser drawer, which was where Uncle William liked to put them.  The stench must have been abominable.

In 1942, Delay joined the U.S. Marine Corps and saw action as a machine gunner.  When he was discharged in 1946, he was heavily decorated, including the Purple Heart.  He got married to Mary Louise Williams, who was a Navy WAVE.  They moved to Rhode Island for a while, then back to Mississippi, where Delay sold tobacco. 

The marriage had its ups and downs – divorce, reconciliation and remarriage, then separation.  Which meant Delay’s life resembled the family estate – it had seen better days.  Reed Massengill, who was the nephew of Delay’s wife, later wrote a book called Portrait of a Racist.
In it, Delay was described as a brutal and violent husband.  

Somewhere in there, Delay joined the Ku Klux Klan.  No one really knew why, but Delay was a die-hard white supremacist.  Delay hated blacks, Jews and Roman Catholics.  As Time magazine later reported, “He tried to inject racism into everything.”  Delay composed and distributed racist pamphlets.  He also took part in anti-integration rallies, where he did things like obstructing non-whites from using public toilet facilities.

At that time – from 1954 until the mid-1960s – the Klan was engaged in open warfare against the Civil Rights movement.  The KKK not only bombed churches and homes, but also wreaked a series of ghastly murders.  One of those murdered was Medgar Evers.  As Leonard Zeskind wrote in Blood and Politics, “That same year [1963] a Klan sniper assassinated Mississippi state NAACP leader Medgar Evers on the doorstep of his home.”

Delay was that Klan sniper.

Medgar Evers

It happened like this:  In the evening hours of June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers attended a meeting of civil rights workers at a church in Jackson, Mississippi.  At the same time, his wife and children were at home, watching as President John F. Kennedy gave a televised speech on civil rights. 

When the meeting was over, Medgar Evers drove to his house.  He parked the car in his driveway.  As Evers got out of his car, Delay was waiting across the way, hidden in a clump of honeysuckle vines.  In his hands, Delay held an Enfield 1917 rifle, .303 caliber, as cited in court records.  Delay took aim and fired.  The bullet smashed into Evers’s back, tore through his chest and exited, leaving a gaping wound.  Evers dropped like a sack of potatoes. 

Subsequent police reports outlined the following scenario:  Mortally wounded, yet still alive, Evers dragged himself toward his house.  He never made it.  His ebbing strength failed him and he stopped just short of the steps to the door, which was where his wife found him a short while later.  Rushed to the hospital, Evers died approximately one hour after being shot.

Medgar Evers was a determined man, as his final crawl toward his house indicated.  For Evers wanted to be somebody and to make a difference.  Inducted into the Army in 1943, Evers saw action in France.  Discharged in 1945, Evers went home to Decatur, Mississippi.  In a way, Evers’s life mirrored that of Byron de la Beckwith.  Both were passionate.  Both served their country in WWII.  It’s after their discharges that their stories diverged.

While Delay was selling tobacco, Evers attended Alcorn College, where he majored in business administration.  After graduating, Evers got married and moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he went to work for Magnolia Life Insurance Company.  The company was owned by T.R.M. Howard, who was the president of a civil rights group called Regional Council of Negro Leadership.  Evers joined the group and worked as an activist.

Evers made application to the University of Mississippi Law School.  Because of his skin color, Evers was rejected.  The University of Mississippi’s enrollment policy did not admit black people as students.  Evers filed a lawsuit against the school.  At almost the same time, he was appointed first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi.  In this capacity, Evers participated in a boycott of white merchants and helped to desegregate the University of Mississippi. 

As a result of his activities, Evers became well known as a black leader in the civil rights movement.  His growing prominence made him a target for the white supremacists of the KKK.  On May 28, 1963, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into his carport.  And on June 7, 1963, someone tried to run him down with a car.  Both incidents were duly reported to the local police.  No suspects were identified. 

Five days later, on June 12, Byron de la Beckwith – aka Delay – assassinated Medgar Evers.  Eleven days later, Delay was arrested.  Witnesses had reported seeing Delay near Evers’s house on the evening of the murder.  And Delay’s car – a white Plymouth Valiant – had been observed driving in the neighborhood.  Police had found the murder weapon secreted in the honeysuckle vines and traced it to Delay.  The Enfield’s telescopic sight had Delay’s fingerprints on it.

What most people didn’t know was that the rifle was found after the police received an anonymous phone call.  The “tipster” told police where the rifle could be found.  Many surmised that Delay himself was the tipster.  He wanted to be arrested and go on trail because he was confident he would never be convicted.  All this information and speculation came out after Delay’s 1994 trial, and was based on court records. 

After his arrest, the police questioned Delay.  He told them the rifle had been stolen and he had forgotten to report it.  Three police officers sympathetic to the KKK asserted they had seen Delay in Greenwood, which was 95 miles away, at the time of the murder.  In other words, Delay now had an alibi.

Nevertheless, a grand jury decided there was enough circumstantial evidence against Delay to indict him for murder.  Delay lawyered up.  He was tried for murder at two separate trials in 1964.  Both times the jury selection process resulted in all-male, all white juries.  And the judge at both trials was Russell Moore, who was a personal friend of Delay. 

At the second trial, the former governor of Mississippi – Ross Barnett – interrupted a witness’s testimony.  The witness was Myrlie Evers, the wife of Medgar Evers.  Governor Barnett walked into the courtroom, looked around, and then walked over to Delay and shook his hand. 

The implication of the governor’s act was clear to everyone:  White people in the state of Mississippi were rooting for Delay. 

In both trials, the all-white juries refused to convict a white man for the murder of a black man.  Delay’s alibi – that police officers had seen him at a gas station back home in Greenwood right after the ambush of Evers – gave the juries the excuse they needed.  Sufficient doubt, which resulted in deadlock.  Because there was no verdict in either trial, both trials ended in mistrials. 

After the second mistrial, Delay felt doubly confident, even arrogant.  He officially joined the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which was the most violent cadre of the Klan.  Delay became good friends with Sam Bowers, who was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights.  Delay, along  with his Klansmen, agitated against the Jews and lobbied to have flouride removed from drinking water.  Delay believed flouridated water was a Jewish plot to weaken the white race.  He also held that The Holocaust was a giant hoax and urged carpet-bombing Israel.

He began bragging at KKK rallies about how he had killed Medgar Evers.  A fellow Klansman, whose name was Delmar Dennis, was one of those who overheard Delay crowing over the deed. 

Thirty years later, Delmar Dennis would remember Delay’s gloating words.  And when he did, the jury would not be all male and all white.  There would be no sympathetic judge sitting on the bench. 

Delay was now famous in Mississippi.  His fame went to his head and in 1967 Delay sought to capitalize on his notoriety.  He believed his celebrity would translate into votes for a white candidate.  So he sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.  A month before the primaries Delay agreed to an interview with the Review.  Among his “chief qualifications” Delay said was that he “was conscious of a diabolical international conspiracy against states’ rights and racial integrity.”

He didn’t get the nomination.  According to the New York Times, Delay “got more than 34,000 votes, finishing fifth in a field of six.”

By 1970, it became apparent that the murder of Medgar Evers had not hindered the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.  In fact, Evers’ death probably accelerated integration.  According to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 26.4 percent of black students in Mississippi public schools attended integrated schools.  When Evers died in 1963, there were only 28,000 African Americans registered to vote in Mississippi.  By 1971, there were 250,000 and by 1982 over 500,000.

African Americans were being elected to public office in Mississippi.  In 1973, the state had 145 black elected officials.  And black applicants were accepted as students in the state’s public and private institutions of higher learning. 

Delay had not stopped integration.  And based on what he did next, it was fairly certain Delay did not understand what was going on, that the world was changing. 

In 1973, believing he was untouchable, Delay plotted to murder the New Orleans director of the Anti-Defamation League, A. I. Botnick, who had – according to Delay’s tangled way of thinking – made contemptuous remarks about Southerners and their attitude toward non-whites. 

Delay couldn’t keep his big mouth shut about what he was planning to do.  Delay had always had loose lips.  He had boasted about killing Medgar Evers at KKK rallies.  And way back in 1956, when making application to the pro-segregation Sovereignty Commission for a job as an operative, Delay had listed his qualifications:  “Expert with a pistol, good with a rifle and fair with a shotgun – RABID ON THE SUBJECT OF SEGREGATION!” 

So just like Chatty Cathy, he said too much at the wrong time to the wrong people about his plot to murder A. I. Botnick.  When they heard what Delay was up to they couldn’t wait to do their own imitation of Chatty Cathy, rapping with the FBI about what they knew.  Which was exactly what they did.

The FBI believed the informants and moved quickly.  They immediately put Delay under surveillance.  And after watching him for a few days, they decided it was time to shut him down.  And they did. 

Delay was driving his car across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway Bridge, when – as if by magic – a police car slid in behind his vehicle.  Delay didn’t think anything of it until he noticed lights flashing in his rearview mirror.  Out of options, Delay pulled over and stopped.  New Orleans police officers approached Delay’s car with drawn weapons.  Searching Delay’s car, police found three loaded weapons, a map of New Orleans and written directions to the home of the director of the Anti-Defamation League.  In the trunk of the car, they discovered a bundle of dynamite with a timer and a detonator.

Delay was arrested and booked.  Once more, Delay lawyered up.  At his arraignment he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder.  It was a federal charge.  When the trial took place in federal court, the jury acquitted Delay of conspiracy to commit murder.  It is interesting to note that the jury was composed of 10 white men and two white women.  After the trial, jurors told newspaper reporters that the evidence against Delay was remote and inconclusive.  And once again it looked like Delay had gotten off. 

But not so fast this time.  The State of Louisiana charged Delay with transporting explosives without a permit.  Which meant Delay underwent another trial in a state court.  This time Delay lost.  The verdict was guilty and he was sentenced to three years in a Louisiana State Prison.  Delay described the five people on the jury as “five nigger bitches.” 

They shipped Delay off to Angola Prison, where he served his time in solitary confinement from May 1977 to January 1980.  He was placed in solitary confinement for a couple of reasons.  First, many of the black inmates would have enjoyed avenging Medgar Evers.  Second, Delay’s constant racial slurs would have gotten him killed in no time.  For he called blacks “apes” and “beasts of the fields.”  While there, Delay became ill and spent a few days in the prison infirmary, where a nurse’s aide, who just happened to be black, tried to provide Delay with treatment.  Delay refused to allow the aide to touch him.  According to The New York Times, Delay told the aide “If I could get rid of an uppity” Medgar Evers, it would be no problem at all to get rid of “a no-account” aide.

The Phineas Priesthood

After his release from prison, Delay went home to Greenwood, Mississippi, where he got a job selling fertilizer.  Delay continued to attend KKK rallies and also became active in the church of Christian Identity, which held frequent gatherings throughout the South.  It was at one of these gatherings that Delay met Richard Kelly Hoskins.  Hoskins was the author of Vigilantes of Christendom: The Story of the Phineas Priesthood.

In his book, Hoskins introduced the concept of the Phineas Priesthood, which was that “lone warriors” or vigilantes would appear in history every so often.  These warrior-priests were sent by God to punish “race traitors.”  This punishment was necessary to protect the honor of God and His chosen people, who were, of course, white.  

As Hoskins made very clear in his book, the Phineas Priesthood was an exclusive clergy.  The only way in was by annihilating the enemies of God.  God’s enemies were defined as blacks, race-mixers, Jews, homosexuals, and abortionists.  Any white supremacist who destroyed these enemies was automatically ordained into the Phineas Priesthood.

The book went on to provide historical examples of such lone-warriors:  John Wilkes Booth, the Waffen SS, the Ku Klux Klan and The Order, which was also known as The Silent Brotherhood.  According to Hoskins, the common dominant trait of these men was a passion to excel – to protect the Honor of God.  And in doing so, they had espoused the doctrine of the Phineas Priesthood.  A doctrine understood by a chosen few.

Obviously, Delay had read Hoskins’ book, because he now claimed – after the fact – that in murdering Medgar Evers, he had been functioning as a Phineas Priest.  In other words, Medgar Evers death was God’s Will. And when Delay – acting as a Phineas Priest – killed Evers, he was removing one of God’s enemies.  Anyway, that’s what Delay wanted people to think.  In reality, it was nothing more than a lame and abject attempt to justify murder. 

Delay and Hoskins were kindred souls and began corresponding with each other. 

Hoskins published a regular newsletter called “The Hoskins Report.”  Supposedly, the newsletter provided financial and investment advice.  In reality, it trumpeted racist propaganda.  In a 1991 issue of the newsletter, Hoskins printed a letter he had received from Delay, who was still famous in white supremacist circles.  At the end of the letter, Delay had written “Phineas for president!”

The letter would come back to haunt Delay.

Mississippi had changed since 1963.  Things were different.  African-Americans no longer sat in the back of the bus or drank from separate drinking fountains.  Segregation was a relic of the past.  There were no more all-white juries that looked the other way.  A new generation of prosecutors with new attitudes began reviewing old cases in which there had been a miscarriage of justice.  One of those cases was the murder of Medgar Evers.

The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, published a series of articles detailing how the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission – which no longer existed – had helped in screening potential jurors in the 1964 trials of Byron de la Beckwith.  Back in 1964, the Sovereignty Commission was rabidly pro-segregation and believed in the Great White Way, which meant no white man should ever be put on trial for the murder of a black man.

The articles caused a scandal.  Most of Southern society was outraged.  And public opinion demanded justice.  The case was reopened and an investigation was begun.  Some whites didn’t want to open that can of worms again.  They didn’t want to air once again Mississippi’s dirty laundry to the national media.  Delay told a reporter, “Country-club Mississippi is tired of this crap the Jews, niggers, and Orientals are stirring up.”   

Delay was arrested and – for a third time – charged with the murder of Medgar Evers.  His bail was set at $100,000.  A “stranger” gave him $12,000 so he could get out of jail.  It later came out that the stranger was a Jewish lawyer named Harry Rosenthal.  As Maryanne Vollers wrote in Ghosts of Mississippi, Rosenthal “said he couldn’t stand to see Beckwith’s rights violated.”  Even though he hated Jews, Delay took the money.

Rosenthal – and a lot of other legal experts – believed Delay’s right to a speedy trial was being violated.  And, that since Delay’s indictment had been open and on the books from 1964 to 1969, he could have been retried during that period, while his previous lawyers were alive and well, memories were fresh, and witnesses were at hand.  But the state had failed to do so. 

In essence, the issue was whether Delay could be tried again or not.  The matter was placed before the Mississippi Supreme Court.  Most of the legal experts and most of the media felt the case against Delay would be dismissed.  Delay would get off scot-free again.

Delay’s luck finally ran out.

The Mississippi Supreme Court decided not to decide whether Delay could be tried again or not until after he was tried.  The decision was a stroke of genius.  For if Delay was acquitted, there was nothing to decide.  If he was convicted, he could appeal.  If Delay appealed, the court would merely say a murder case that has been dismissed could be retried in good faith, because there was no statute of limitations on murder. 

Delay spent a lot of time shopping for a lawyer.  In the end, he decided on Buddy Coxwell and Jim Kitchens as his defense team.  The prosecutors were Bobby Delaughter and Ed Peters.

The prosecution introduced new evidence, which was that Delay had boasted of killing Medgar Evers to many people over the course of the last three decades.  Klansman Delmar Dennis took the stand and told the jury how Delay had bragged about killing Evers thirty years before.  They also introduced Delay’s admission to the nurse’s aide in prison, that he had killed Evers.  And they linked Delay to the letter published in “The Hoskins Report.”

Déjà vu.  The letter was back.

The background page of the Anti-Defamation League’s website states that “Hoskins’s writings drew public attention in October 1991, when prosecutors in Mississippi linked white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith to the Phineas Priesthood.”

In other words, for the first time, the general public became aware of the existence of a cluster of violent religious bigots, who killed “for God’s sake.”  

The murder weapon – the 1917 Enfield – was still available as evidence.  For Delay – at the conclusion of the second trial in 1964 – had simply picked it up and walked away with it.  He had given the rifle to Russell Moore, who was a friend and the presiding judge at the 1964 mistrials, as a “souvenir.”  Everyone who knew Moore knew he had the rifle.  It was in the closet of his house.  One of the prosecutors, Bobby Delaughter, just went over to Moore’s house and got it.

As the trial unfolded, Delay sat in the courtroom wearing a Confederate flag on his lapel.  He still didn’t believe he would ever be convicted.  However, this time there was no all-male, all white jury.  This time the jury was composed of 8 African-Americans and 4 white people.  And because of the pre-trial publicity, the jurors were not from Jackson, Mississippi.  They were from Panola County and arrived on a specially chartered bus. 

In his book – The Ghosts of Medgar Evers, author Willie Morris described the atmosphere of the trial as full of hate.  Delay’s supporters sat in the courtroom, glaring.  They were “Klansmen, hate-mail publishers, and homegrown Mississippi neo-Nazis.”  Delay’s second and current wife was there too.  Thelma de la Beckwith.  She wore a blond wig and “told reporters it was Lee Harvey Oswald who really shot Evers.”

On February 5, 1994, the jury returned a verdict of guilty.  When the verdict was announced, Delay looked as if dazed and confused.  This was more than he had ever bargained for. 

The sentence was life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Byron de la Beckwith was 74 years old.  Normally, they would have shipped him off to Mississippi State Penitentiary, which was Mississippi’s only maximum security prison.  Once upon a time it had been called Parchman Farm.  But because of who he was and what he had done, Delay would have been dead in no time at all.  So they didn’t send him there.  Instead, he would be held in the Hinds County Jail for the rest of his life.   

Delay filed an appeal.  The basis of the appeal was that he had been denied his right to a speedy trial.  The contention was that undergoing a third trial for the same murder – thirty-one years later – could in no way be interpreted as speedy.  The appeal was overturned, as there was no statute of limitations for the crime of murder.

Seven years later, on January 21, 2001, Delay died.  At the time of his death, he was in the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was being treated for heart disease and high blood pressure. 

The only legacy Delay left behind was the exaltation of hate.

Medgar Evers left behind a different kind of legacy – one of compassion, tolerance and service.

After the second mistrial, Myrlie Evers – the widow of Medgar Evers – moved her family to Claremont, California, which was just south of Los Angeles.  She enrolled in Claremont College.  In 1967, she published her memoir For Us, The Living.  The title came from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  Then in 1968, Myrlie Evers graduated with a BA in sociology.

 

Myrlie Evers with her children at Medgar Evers' grave, Arlington National cemetery, 1964.

 

She became the Democratic candidate for a congressional seat from southern California in 1970.  Losing heavily in the Republican districts, she still managed to gain 38 percent of the vote.  It was not enough to win.  She took a job in public relations and later became vice president for advertising and publicity at Atlantic Richfield. 

In 1987, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley appointed her to the position of commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, where she helped supervise 6000 employees and administered half a billion dollars.  She served as a commissioner for five years. 

She married Walter Williams, who was a union organizer and civil rights activist.  Eventually, the couple moved to Oregon.  Several months after Byron de la Beckwith was finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison, Myrlie was elected chair of the board of the NAACP.

Medgar Evers’ children grew up in southern California and went on to lead triumphant lives.  Darrell became a successful artist.  Reena married, had children and worked for an airline.  Van became a noted photographer.

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