Byron De La Beckwith Sr. (November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and Klansman from Greenwood, Mississippi, who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. Two trials in 1964 on this charge resulted in hung juries. In 1994, he was tried by the state in a new trial based on new evidence; he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Seven years after being convicted of killing Evers, De La Beckwith died in prison in 2001 at age 80.
|Byron De La Beckwith|
November 9, 1920|
Colusa, California, U.S.
January 21, 2001 (aged 80)|
University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
|Known for||The assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers|
Mary Louise Williams (m. 1946–1960)
Thelma Neff (m. 1982–2001)(his death)
|Children||Delay De La Beckwith|
De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California, the son of Susan Southworth Yerger and Byron De La Beckwith Sr., who was the town's postmaster. His father died of pneumonia when he was five years old. One year later, De La Beckwith and his mother settled in Greenwood, Mississippi, to be near family. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 12 years old, leaving him orphaned. He was raised by his maternal uncle William Greene Yerger and his wife.
In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, serving as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater of World War II. He fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was shot in the waist during the Battle of Tarawa. De La Beckwith was honorably discharged in August 1945.
After serving in the Marine Corps, De La Beckwith moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams. The couple relocated to Mississippi, where they settled in his hometown of Greenwood. They had a son together, Delay De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith and Williams divorced. He later married Thelma Lindsay Neff.
De La Beckwith worked as a salesman for most of his life, selling tobacco, fertilizer, wood stoves, and a variety of other goods. In 1954, following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, he became a member of a newly formed chapter of the White Citizens' Council. The group was formed in Mississippi that year in order to resist integration and maintain the exclusion of most blacks from the state's political system.
The White Citizens' Council was founded in 1954 following the United States Supreme Court's ruling that de jure public school segregation was unconstitutional. Begun in Mississippi, chapters arose in towns across the South among whites who wanted to resist integration. Their members used a variety of economic tactics to suppress black activism and sustain segregation. The councils applied severe pressure by boycotting black businesses, denying loans and credit to African Americans, firing people from their jobs, and other means. In Mississippi they prevented school integration until 1964. Although similar in nature to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the White Citizens' Council was perceived to be a more reputable association than the KKK because it lacked a historical reputation as a violent organization.
The state twice prosecuted De La Beckwith for murder in 1964, but both trials ended with hung juries. The jurors were all male and all white. Mississippi had effectively disenfranchised black voters since 1890, and they were excluded from serving on juries, whose members were drawn from voter rolls. During the second trial, the former Governor Ross Barnett interrupted the proceedings, shaking hands with De La Beckwith while Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers' widow, was testifying.
In January 1966, De La Beckwith, along with a number of other members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about Klan activities. Although De La Beckwith gave his name when asked by the committee (other witnesses, such as Samuel Bowers, invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to that question), he answered no other substantive questions. In the following years, De La Beckwith became a leader in the segregationist Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity Movement. The group was known for its hostility towards African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and foreigners.
According to Delmar Dennis, who acted as a key witness for the prosecution at the 1994 trial, De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several KKK rallies and similar gatherings in the years following his mistrials. In 1967, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi.
In 1969, Beckwith's previous charges were dismissed. In 1973, informants alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation that De La Beckwith planned to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans-based B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, in retaliation for comments that Botnick had made about white Southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance, New Orleans Police Department officers stopped De La Beckwith as he was traveling by car on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge to New Orleans. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with highlighted directions to Botnick's house, and a dynamite time bomb. On August 1, 1975, De La Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder; he served nearly three years in the Angola Prison in Louisiana from May 1977 until he was paroled in January 1980. Just before entering prison to serve his sentence, De La Beckwith was ordained by Reverend Dewey "Buddy" Tucker as a minister in the Temple Memorial Baptist Church, a Christian Identity congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In the 1980s, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published reports on its investigation of De La Beckwith's trials in the 1960s. It found that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a state agency supported by residents' taxes and purportedly protecting the image of the state, had assisted De La Beckwith's attorneys in his second trial. The Commission had worked against the civil rights movement in numerous ways. In this case, it used state resources to investigate members of the jury pool during voir dire so the defense could try to pick the best jury. The findings about the illegal role contributed to a retrial of De La Beckwith by the state in 1994.
De La Beckwith planned more direct action than economic boycotts. On June 12, 1963, at age 42, he assassinated NAACP and civil rights leader Medgar Evers shortly after the activist arrived home in Jackson. Beckwith was positioned across the street with a rifle, and he shot Evers in the back. Evers died an hour later, aged 37 years. Myrlie Evers, his wife, and his three children, James, Reena, and Darrell Evers, were home at the time of the assassination.
Myrlie Evers recalled being devastated at the sight of her husband, saying,
"When Medgar was felled by that shot and I rushed out and saw him lying there and people from the neighborhood began to gather, there were also some whose color happened to have been white. I don't think I have ever hated as much in my life as I did at that particular moment with anyone who had white skin. I screamed at the neighbors and when the police finally got there, I told them that they had killed Medgar. And I can recall wanting so much to have a machine gun or something in my hand and just stand there and mow them all down. I was just -- I can't explain the depth of my hatred at that point".
Their son Darrell recalled the night vividly: "We were ready to greet him, because every time he came home it was special for us. He was traveling a lot at that time. All of a sudden, we heard a shot. We knew what it was". Darrell and the other children fled to the bathroom to hide in the bathtub. All three kids had been taught by their parents and forced to practice drills for safety prior to their father's death because of threats against him and two previous attacks on the house.
Myrlie Evers, who would later become the third woman to chair the NAACP, refused to abandon her husband's case. When new documents showed that jurors in the previous case were illegally investigated and screened by a state agency, she pressed authorities to re-open the case. In the 1980s, the reporting by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger about the earlier Beckwith trials resulted in the state mounting a new investigation. It ultimately initiated a third prosecution, based on this and other new evidence.
By this time, De La Beckwith was living in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. He was extradited to Mississippi for trial at the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson. Before his trial, "Beckwith, a 71-year-old white supremacist, had asked the justices to dismiss the case against him on the grounds that it violated his rights to a speedy trial, due process and protection from double jeopardy." The court ruled against his motion by a 4 to 3 vote, and the case was scheduled to be heard in January 1994.
During this third trial, the murder weapon was presented, an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle, with Beckwith’s fingerprints. Beckwith claimed that the gun was stolen from his house. He listed his health problems, high blood pressure, lack of energy and kidney problems, saying "I need a list to recite everything I suffer from, and I hate to complain because I'm not the complaining type". The 1994 state trial was held before a jury consisting of eight blacks and four whites. They convicted De La Beckwith of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers. New evidence included testimony that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally, and that he had also boasted of the murder to others during the three decades since the crime had occurred. The physical evidence was essentially the same as that presented during the first two trials.
De La Beckwith appealed the guilty verdict, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1997. The court said that 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 imprisonment for first-degree murder without the possibility of parole. De La Beckwith sought judicial review in the United States Supreme Court, but it was denied certiorari.
On January 21, 2001, De La Beckwith died after he was transferred from prison to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He was 80 years old. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure, and other ailments for some time.