Medger Evers, Desegregation, and the KKK

On this day in 1963, African-American civil rights leader Medgar Evers is gunned down in front of his family’s Jackson, Mississippi home by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith; his wife Myrlie and the couple’s three small children were inside and witnessed the slaying.

A WW2 veteran of the Normandy invasion 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 murder, Evers and his wife Myrlie had trained their children on safety in case of a shooting, bombing or other form of attack on their lives, drilling the family to take 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 treatment 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, 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, and after four years of legal maneuvering, 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. Justice was finally served when Beckwith was convicted and given a life sentence by a racially diverse jury in 1994.

Beckwith died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80, and here this sad lesson of hate endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.