Public memory is an unreliable thing. Many of our heroes have been long forgotten while the names and deeds of scoundrels are known to many. The unfairness is particularly noticeable for Medgar Evers. Search his name on Google and you’ll get 900,000 hits. But search the name of his murderer and you’ll see Byron De La Beckwith mentioned on 11,000,000 websites.
How did Byron De La Beckwith deserve so much attention? Why is his crime so much better remembered than Evers’ years of work to end discrimination?
Perhaps the reason lies in the incredibly slow path between Beckwith and justice, in which he evaded punishment for nearly half his life.
In 1963, the Post recounted some of the events that led up to Evers’ murder on June 12 of that year.
Born and educated in Mississippi, Evers had fought in World War II and in many of his interests and activities he was the counterpart of thousands of white Mississippians. He was a Baptist, a Mason, an Elk, a member of the American Legion and of the YMCA. He was also field secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. in Mississippi. Evers had tried to persuade his people to register and vote. He had led them on street demonstrations and sit-ins in public places. Worst of all, he had brought suit to integrate the Jackson schools.
All through the balmy, flower-scented spring of 1963 tension had been building up between Jackson’s 100,000 whites and 50,000 Negroes.
Then on May 28 violence flared. At a ten-cent store four Negro students and a white professor from Tougaloo College had staged a sit-in at a lunch counter. A mob of whites attacked the five. Two were beaten, one severely. That night 2,000 people jammed into a church to hear Evers call upon the whole Negro community to take to the streets in protest. When he shouted, “Who’s ready to march?” the entire audience rose.
The city struck back hard. Within the next few days over 500 demonstrators, many of them children, were thrown into paddy wagons and garbage trucks and hauled away to a temporary stockade.
White hatred focused on Evers. A fire bomb made of a beer bottle filled with gasoline exploded in the carport of his home. And though his telephone was unlisted, somehow the calls got through. Sometimes the hard voice threatened his life. And he answered, “Man, I don’t want to kill you. Why should you want to kill me?”
But on June 12 someone did. The state claimed it was Beckwith.
The nation followed the trial closely, waiting to see if Mississippi jurors would convict a man for acting on the hatred that so many others were threatening.
“Call Myrlie Evers.”
There was a gentle stirring the courtroom as the wife of the dead man took the stand. Calm, composed, quiet in dress and manner, she told what happened on the night her husband was killed. It was a little after midnight on the morning of June 12, 1963. She and the children had waited for him. She heard the car come down Guynes Street and turn into the driveway. She heard the car door close. Then there came the crash of the rifle, and the children fell to the floor, as they had been taught. She ran out. Her husband, a red wound in his back, the front of his chest torn away, lay face down in the driveway. He was trying to crawl toward the door, trailing behind him a smear of blood. The children knelt beside him, crying. “Get up, Daddy.” She began to scream, and that is all she could remember.
After the jury retired, it deliberated for 11 hours before the judge decided they were deadlocked and declared a mistrial. The Post reporter worked hard to find something hopeful in the outcome.
In the light of Mississippi’s history, and of the fears and hatreds which still haunt that troubled land, the fact that six white men held out for conviction was in itself a victory for the law.
A victory for the law, perhaps, but certainly not for African-Americans. The emptiness of this “victory” was made clear when Beckwith was retried the same year. Again, an all-white jury failed to deliver a verdict, no doubt influenced by the appearance of Governor Ross Barnett, who showed up in the courtroom to shake Beckwith’s hand.
Beckwith remained at liberty for the next three decades (except for three years he spent in jail for conspiring to murder New Orleans’ head of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League.)
It wasn’t until 1994 that the state obtained evidence to justify a new trial. Beckwith was tried again and, this time, convicted—a victory for the law and the people diminished by its delay.
Public memory may be unreliable, but it is never immovable. The day may come that Beckwith’s notoriety fades and Medgar Evers is remembered more for his life than his death.