On this day in 1994, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith is convicted for the 1963 murder of African-American civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers had been gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home while his wife, Myrlie, and the couple’s three small children were inside.
A WW2 veteran and college graduate, Evers became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s. Following the 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Evers challenged the segregation of the state-supported public University of Mississippi, applying to law school there. He also worked for voting rights, economic opportunity, access to public facilities, and other changes in the segregated society.
At the time of his assassination, Evers lived with the constant threat of death. A large Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist population were present in Jackson and its suburbs. The risk was so high that before his death, Evers and his wife Myrlie had trained their children for safety in case of a shooting, bombing or other kind of attack on their lives, drilling the family on taking cover in the bathtub.
Evers, who was regularly followed home by at least two FBI cars and one police car, arrived at his home the morning of his death without an escort. Felled by a single bullet to his chest cavity, Evers staggered up to his front door. He was taken to the local hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was initially refused entry because of his race.
Evers’ killer, one Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and Ku Klux Klan member, was prosecuted for murder in 1964. However, two successive all-white (and all-male) juries deadlocked and refused to convict him. The matter was dropped when it appeared that a conviction would be impossible, and an unrepentant Beckwith became a white nationalist folk hero.
Nearly 30 years later, Prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter worked with Myrlie Evers to force another prosecution of Beckwith. After four years of legal wrangling, they were finally successful. At the third trial they produced a rifle scope from the murder weapon with Beckwith’s fingerprints, as well as new witnesses who testified that Beckwith had bragged about committing the crime.
One such witness, Mark Reiley, testified that in 1979 he was a guard in the prison ward of the Earl K. Long Hospital in Baton Rouge, La. He said he had met the defendant when “Mr. Beckwith” was serving a prison sentence in Louisiana for bomb possession and was taken to the hospital. Reiley described how as an impressionable 21-year-old he had been drawn to the cocky Beckwith, who had talked of “religious beliefs” that blacks were beasts meant to be dominated by whites, the “chosen people.” Reiley further recalled an argument which occurred when a black nurse’s aide responded to Beckwith’s call for assistance.
“They were both screaming at each other . . . he said, ‘If I could get rid of a uppity nigger like Medgar Evers, I could get rid of a no-count nigger like you.'” Time, tide, and the willingness of witnesses previously too frightened of, or enamored with Beckwith finally turned that same tide. Beckwith was convicted and given a life sentence by a racially diverse jury in 1994; he died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.
Beckwith was interred in Chattanooga Memorial Park Cemetery. Recently, an internet service found it necessary to discontinue the “virtual flowers” option for that particular gravesite due to overuse.