In 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a white man, stood trial accused in the murder of black Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers was the thirty-seven year old Field Secretary for the NAACP; Beckwith was a member of the White Citizens Chapter of Greenwood, Mississippi. Although the case drew national attention at a time when the country was torn apart by racial strife, two different all-white juries were unable to reach a unanimous decision and both trials resulted in mistrials. It was not until 1989 that a young, white prosecutor in Jackson, Mississippi named Bobby DeLaughter gained interest in the case after reading a newspaper article. DeLaughter set the wheels in motion for Beckwith’s third trial which ultimately ended in his conviction in 1994.
Background of a Killer
On November 9, 1920, Byron de la Beckwith, an only child, was born to Byron De La Beckwith, Sr. and Susie Yerger in Sacramento, California. One of Beckwith’s early childhood memories was of the Ku Klux Klan marching through town, fully clad in their long white robes. During the twenties, there were over two million known members of the Klan and at least two were U.S. Senators. Needless to say, this left quite an impression on the young boy. Beckwith’s father died in 1926, his debts exceeding the value of his estate, leaving Susie and Byron Jr., whom they had nicknamed “Delay”, destitute. Susie left California, along with her son, for her native Greenwood, Mississippi. Beckwith’s mother passed away a few short years later, leaving Beckwith rearing to one of her cousins.
During World War II, Beckwith joined the Marines, where he received the Purple Heart for wounds in action in 1943. Considering a military career, he applied to Officer Candidate School but his application was declined. Therefore, he was honorably discharged in 1946, having obtained the rank of Staff Sergeant. He had married Mary Louise “Willie” Williams the year prior and the couple returned to Greenwood, Mississippi where Beckwith had lived with uncle.
The Beckwiths had one child, also named Byron, born late in 1946. Although family life was good at first, soon Beckwith followed in his father’s footsteps, drinking heavily. He also became increasingly violent towards his wife, Willie.
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. the Board of Education, striking down Plessy vs. Ferguson’s ruling of “separate but equal.” Those in the South who favored segregation, such as Beckwith, coined the day “Black Monday.”
In response to the Court decision, the Citizens’ Council was formed in Indianola, a few months thereafter and by the end of the year, had chapters in seventeen counties. After hearing founding member, Circuit Court Judge Tom P. Brady, speak at a meeting of the Sons of the American Revolution, Beckwith zealously joined the group. One of Council’s first projects was to successfully pass an amendment to...