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Byron de la BECKWITH





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: White supremacist - "Ku Klus Klan"
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: June 12, 1963
Date of birth: November 9, 1920
Victim profile: Civil rights leader Medgar Evers
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Jackson, Mississippi, USA
Status: Twice tried for murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with all-white, all-male juries. A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight African-Americans and 4 whites, convicted Beckwith. Sentenced to life in prison in 1994. Died in prison on January 21, 2001
photo gallery

Byron De La Beckwith (November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and the convicted murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

During the 1960s the Ku Klux Klan was involved in numerous acts of terrorism (as they would be described today); Evers's assassination, on 12 June 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, was another episode in the Klan's violent campaign against racial integration and civil rights for African-Americans.

De La Beckwith was twice tried for murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with all-white, all-male juries unable to reach verdicts. A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight African-Americans and 4 whites, convicted Beckwith of the murder of Evers.

The conviction was based, in part, on new evidence that he had boasted of the killing at a Ku Klux Klan rally and to others over the three decades after the crime. The physical evidence was essentially the same as was used during the first two trials. Sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, Byron De La Beckwith died in prison in 2001 of heart problems.

The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods portrayed Beckwith in an Academy Award-nominated performance.


  • David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, T.R.M. Howard: Pragmatism over Strict Integrationist Ideology in the Mississippi Delta, 1942-1954 in Glenn Feldman, ed., Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South (2004 book)

  • Brown, Jennie. Medgar Evers. Los Angeles: Melrose Square Pub. Co., 1994.

  • John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994 book).

  • Evers, Myrlie B., and William Peters. For Us, the Living. 1st ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967; Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

  • Jackson, James E. At the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi: A Tribute in Tears and a Thrust for Freedom. New York: Publisher’s New Press, 1963.

  • Massengill, Reed. Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers? New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

  • Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994; Da Capo Press, 2002.

  • Charles M. Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995 book).

  • Salter, John R. Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism. Foreword by R. Edwin King, Jr. Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1979.

  • Scott, R. W. Glory in Conflict: A Saga of Byron De La Beckwith. Camden, Arkansas: Camark Press, 1991.

  • Remembering Medgar Evers—For a New Generation: A Commemoration. Developed by the Civil Rights Research and Documentation Project, Afro-American Studies Program, The University of Mississippi. Oxford, MS: distributed by Heritage Publications in cooperation with the Mississippi Network for Black History and Heritage, 1988.

  • Vollers, Maryanne. Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, The Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.


Byron De La Beckwith (November 9, 1920 – January 21, 2001) was an American white supremacist and Klansman who was convicted of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Early life

De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California to Susan Southworth Yerger. When he was five years old, his father died of pneumonia and De La Beckwith subsequently moved to the Sacramento area. He later moved with his mother to Greenwood, Mississippi to be near relatives. Beckwith's mother died of lung cancer when he was 12, and he was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, William Greene Yerger.

De La Beckwith enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in January 1942, and served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater. He saw action at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was wounded during the Battle of Tarawa. For his service, Beckwith was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (twice), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and also received the Purple Heart. Later claims that Beckwith was awarded the Silver Star are unfounded, according to official Marine Corps records. He was discharged in January 1946.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Beckwith moved to Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams. Beckwith then settled in Greenwood with his wife, and worked as a tobacco and fertilizer salesman for 10 years. He attended the Greenwood Episcopal Church of the Nativity and became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

KKK activities

During the 1960s, the Klan was involved in numerous acts of violence and terrorism. The assassination of Medgar Evers, on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, was another episode in the Klan's violent campaign against racial integration and civil rights for African-Americans. De La Beckwith was twice tried for murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with the all-white jury unable to reach a verdict. In the second trial, former Governor Ross Barnett interrupted the proceedings while Myrlie Evers was testifying to shake hands with Beckwith.

In the following years, he became a leader in the pro-segregationist Phineas Priesthood, a branch of the white supremacist Christian Identity Movement; a cause known for its espousing of hostility towards not only blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, and foreign-born American citizens specifically, as well as the United States Federal Government. According to Delmar Dennis (key witness for the prosecution at his 1994 trial), De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several Ku Klux Klan rallies and other similar gatherings in the years following his mistrials. In 1967, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi.

In 1973, informants alerted the FBI of Beckwith's plans to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans based B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, for comments Botnick had made about southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance, De La Beckwith's car was stopped by New Orleans police as he crossed over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with directions to Botnick's house highlighted, and a dynamite time bomb.

On August 1, 1975 Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, serving three years in Angola Prison which he served from May 1977 until January 1980.

Imprisonment for Evers murder

A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight African-American and four white jurors, ended with Beckwith being convicted of first-degree murder, for killing Medgar Evers. The conviction was based on new evidence proving that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally and to others over the three decades after the crime. The physical evidence was essentially the same as was used during the first two trials. The guilty verdict was subsequently appealed, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1997. The court said 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 in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. The attorneys for the prosecution, Bobby DeLaughter and Ed Peters, were later disbarred for their involvement in the Dickie Scruggs bribery case.

He died on January 21, 2001 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments.

Fictional portrayals

The most important fictional portrayal of Evers' murderer was written immediately after the event, before De La Beckwith was captured, by the Jackson, Mississippi native Eudora Welty: "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" (1963). As Welty said later, she said to herself, "Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his story--my fiction--in the first person: about that character's point of view" (Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, xi). Welty's story was published in The New Yorker soon after de la Beckwith's arrest. So accurate was her portrayal that several details in the fiction had to be changed before publication for legal reasons. Welty casts her dramatic monologue of white hate, fear, and confusion--ironically--as a sort of blues song sung by the murderer as he tries to use violence to keep blacks from rising: "sing a-down, down, down, down. Down." are the story's last words. Welty was the first living writer honored by inclusion in the Library of America series collecting the works of great American writers.

Byron De La Beckwith was the subject of the 1963 Bob Dylan song "Only a Pawn in Their Game", which deplores Evers' murder and the racist element in "The South" of that time, while dismissing De La Beckwith himself as merely a product of his environment.

The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods portrayed De La Beckwith in an Academy Award-nominated performance. The prosecution lawyer Robert DeLaughter wrote a first person narrative article titled "Mississippi Justice" published in Reader's Digest.

In the episode of Mr. Show, "Show Me Your Weenis," there's a fictional TV series named "Byron De La Beckwith VII: Racist in the Year 3000." The character is presumably a descendent of Byron De La Beckwith.


Medgar Evers Assassin Dies

JACKSON, Mississippi, Jan. 22, 2001

Byron De La Beckwith, convicted assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and one of the most notorious and recalcitrant white supremacists of that era, died after he was transferred from his jail cell to a hospital, reports CBS News Correspondent Christopher Glenn.

Beckwith was 80.

Barbara Austin, a hospital spokeswoman, said Beckwith entered University Medical Center at 2:07 p.m. CDT Sunday. She could not elaborate on his ailment or the cause of death.

"It's a matter for the coroner's office to determine," she said.

Evers, a 37-year-old field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who pushed for an end to segregation, had stepped out of his car when he was shot in the back on June 12, 1963. He was walking to his house with an armful of "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts.

Beckwith, a white supremacist, was convicted at a third trial in 1994 after two mistrials three decades earlier. After his conviction, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

His fingerprint was found on a deer rifle used to kill Evers. It was abandoned in the lot across the street. But the former fertilizer salesman insisted he was 90 miles (145 kilometers) away in Greenwood when Evers was murdered.

Two all-white juries deadlocked in trials in 1964. Twelve years ago, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, asked for the case to be reopened, and Hinds County District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter agreed.

"At the very beginning ... we didn't have anything," DeLaughter said. "The DA's file was nowhere to be found. We did not have the benefit of a trial transcript to know who the witnesses were. None of the evidence had been retained by the court."

But DeLaughter and his officers stumbled across new evidence, including negatives from the crime scene and new witnesses who testified Beckwith had bragged to them "about beating the system."

Beckwith was arrested Dec. 17, 1990, and when he stood in front of a new jury in 1994, he was 74 years old.

His prosecutors were armed with new evidence and a 127-page document claiming 21 errors were made in Beckwith's original trial. Also, eight of the 12 jurors were black.

Beckwith was found guilty of murder and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1997.

Beckwith is survived by his wife and a son.


Medgar Willy Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist from Mississippi who was murdered by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Medgar Evers was born on July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. In 1943, Evers, then 17, dropped out of high school to enlist in the army with his older brother Charlie. Evers fought in the European Theatre of WWII and was honorably discharged in 1945 as a Sergeant. In 1946, having returned to his hometown, Evers, along with his brother and four friends, registered to vote in a local election. On voting day, however, local white citizens used intimidation to prevent Evers and the others from casting their votes. He recounts this moment in his autobiography:

"When we got to the courthouse, the clerk said he wanted to talk with us. When we got into his office, some 15 or 20 armed white men surged in behind us, men I had grown up with, had played with. We split up and went home. Around town, Negroes said we had been whipped, beaten up and run out of town. Well, in a way we were whipped, I guess, but I made up my mind then that it would not be like that again—at least not for me. I was committed, in a way, to change things."

In 1948, Evers enrolled at Alcorn State University, majoring in business administration. In college he was on the debate team, played football and ran track, sang in the school choir and served as president of his junior class.

He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on December 24, 1951, and completed work on his degree the following year. The couple moved to Mound Bayou, MS, where T.R.M. Howard had hired him to sell insurance for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Howard was also the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization. Involvement in the RCNL gave Evers crucial training in activism. He helped to organize the RCNL's boycott of service stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom." Along with his brother, Charles Evers, he also attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954 which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.

Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was rejected, Evers became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school, a case aided by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 that segregation was unconstitutional.

He was involved in a boycott campaign against white merchants and was instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi when that institution was finally forced to enroll James Meredith in 1962.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself the target of a number of threats. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard made him a prominent black leader and therefore vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home. Five days before his death, Evers was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office. Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first week of June 1963. A local television station granted Evers time for a short speech, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on Evers' life increased.

On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after just returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go," Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from an Enfield 1917.303 rifle that ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later. Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy's speech on national television in support of civil rights.

Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors in front of a crowd of more than three thousand people. It was the largest funeral at Arlington since the interment of John Foster Dulles, former U.S. Secretary of State in 1959. The past chairman of the American Veterans' Committee, Mickey Levine, said at the services, "No soldier in this field has fought more courageously, more heroically than Medgar Evers."

On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers' murder. During the course of his first trial in 1964, De La Beckwith was visited by former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker.

All-white juries twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt.

The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar. Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963 song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" about Evers and his assassination. The song's lyrics included: "Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king." Nina Simone took up the topic in her song "Mississippi Goddam". Phil Ochs wrote the songs "The Ballad of Medgar Evers" and "Another Country" in response to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the haunting "Ballad of Medgar Evers." Eudora Welty's short story "Where is the Voice Coming From," in which the speaker is the imagined assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker.

In 1965, Jackson C. Frank included the lyrics "But there aren't words to bring back Evers" in his tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, "Don't Look Back," found on his only, self-titled, album. Malvina Reynolds mentioned "the shot in Evers' back" in her song "It Isn't Nice". More recently, rapper Immortal Technique asks if a diamond is "worth the blood of Malcolm and Medgar Evers?" in the song "Crossing the Boundary". The Rza sang on "I Can't Go to Sleep" by Wu-Tang Clan, "Medgar took one to the back for integrating college."

In 1994, thirty years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, Beckwith was again brought to trial based on new evidence, and Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as the attorney. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly good state of preservation as a result of embalming. Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for the three decades following the killing. Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January 2001.

Evers' legacy has been kept alive in a variety of ways. Minrose Gwin notes that after his death, Medgar Evers was memorialized by the authors Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Margaret Walker and Anne Moody. In 1970, Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York as part of the City University of New York. In 1983, a made-for-television movie, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story starring Howard Rollins Jr. was aired, celebrating the life and career of Medgar Evers. On June 28, 1992, the city of Jackson, MS erected a statue in honor of Evers. All of Delta Drive (part of U.S. Highway 49) in Jackson was renamed in Evers' honor. In December 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the city's airport to Jackson-Evers International Airport in honor of Evers.rainbow

The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi directed by Rob Reiner tells the story of the 1994 retrial of Beckwith, in which prosecutor Robert DeLaughter of the District Attorney's office secured a conviction. Beckwith and DeLaughter were played by James Woods and Alec Baldwin, respectively; Whoopi Goldberg played Myrlie Evers.

Evers' widow, Myrlie, became a noted activist in her own right later in life, eventually serving as chair of the NAACP. Medgar's brother Charles returned to Jackson in July 1963 and served briefly in his slain brother's place. Charles Evers remained involved in Mississippi Civil Rights for years to come. He resides in Jackson.

Early in 2007, comedian Chris Rock appeared as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher. Regarding a recent incident in which comedian Michael Richards had repeatedly called an African American man in the audience "nigger" during a performance, Bill Maher asked Chris Rock if Rock considered Richards racist. Rock responded "He stood up for two minutes and shouted 'nigger'! What do you have to do? Shoot Medgar Evers?"



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