BILL MINOR: Questions remain 50 years after Evers’ murder

By Bill Minor

The assassination of Medgar Evers in June, 1963 was virtually inevitable. Why? Because Evers, a native Mississippian, had arisen as the first significant black threat to the state’s revered institution of white supremacy.
I had seen racial tension rise to a fever pitch ever since the NAACP field secretary Evers in early May launched his long-anticipated “Jackson Movement.” Blacks organized by Evers peaceably picketed and boycotted downtown businesses.
But the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in on May 28 had exploded in ugly violence. Meantime, Evers won an FCC order to appear on Jackson’s WLBT-TV and argue the case for elimination of racial barriers in public facilities and urge city officials to cooperate.
His TV appearance sent shock waves through Mississippi’s segregationist ranks. The general manager of WLBT, a white Citizens Council leader, nervously boarded up the station’s windows when Evers was on the air. It was obvious to me and the few of us reporters Evers liked and trusted that the NAACP leader’s life was now in jeopardy.
Surprisingly the killer would turn out to be Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman from Greenwood, who was unknown on Jackson’s civil rights front. So audacious was Beckwith that he ditched the rifle containing his fingerprints where he hid in a honeysuckle vine-covered patch 300 feet diagonally across from Evers’ home.
Back then, and still today I find many troubling details that were never explored in Beckwith’s two 1964 deadlocked trials to explain how Beckwith could have pulled off such a complex assassination plot in a black neighborhood 90 miles from his home without help. My feeling has always been that at the very least some Jackson enablers, if not police officers, contributed ground support and intricate details as to Evers’ movements when doing his job.
Seeing Evers honored today by Jackson’s white community as a martyr in the struggle for civil rights, we tend to forget how he was held in contempt by most Mississippi newspapers and political leaders at the time he was assassinated. Most unforgettable to those of us who remember those days was the infamous June 24, 1963 front page headline in The Clarion Ledger after the FBI arrested Beckwith: “Californian Is Charged With Murder of Evers.” By accident of birth, the 42-year-old Beckwith had spent the first three years of his life in California until he and his family moved back to Mississippi to stay. Then-Gov. Ross Barnett had commented that Evers’ death was “regrettable.” But a Clarion-Ledger columnist topped it all by suggesting “a paid assassin might have done the job.”
After Beckwith was indicted for murder and awaiting trial, he strangely was not locked up in the Hinds County Jail (which back then was located on the top floor of what is now the Criminal Courts Building) and, instead was housed in a spacious apartment-like cell in Rankin County. When it was revealed the Rankin sheriff had allowed Beckwith to keep his gun collection with him in a spacious lockup, it caused a stir and the Hinds County sheriff decided to take him back minus guns.
That gave me a rare chance to speak personally to the erstwhile fertilizer salesman, who had been shielded from reporters by his lawyers. A Hinds deputy who liked me, tipped me off to be at the ground floor of the special elevator when Beckwith was brought in at a certain time that night from Rankin County. You bet I was there, Johnny on the spot. Only the deputy, Beckwith and I rode up on the elevator to the fourth floor jail. Not trying to sound like an inquiring reporter I tossed him a couple of softball questions to which I got answers that made no sense, as though he didn’t know why he was being held captive. But I did get one lasting impression that Beckwith was a person who would kill in cold blood the one man Mississippi blacks – tired of oppression – would follow. Here before me, I realized was a carbon copy of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had sought his one moment of fame.
Beckwith would remain a free man (even campaigning for lieutenant governor in 1967) for four decades until the case was revived by a Hinds County assistant district attorney. He was largely pushed by reporter Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion Ledger who found a link between the trial jury selection and the notoriously segregationist state Sovereignty Commission. Remarkably, in 1994 a biracial jury from another part of the state, at last convicted Beckwith. While serving a life sentence, Beckwith in 2001 died in prison.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.