Born in California in 1920, Byron De La Beckwith grew up in Mississippi. A segregationist and member of the Ku Klux Klan, he shot and killed NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963. Though he was arrested for the crime, two all-white juries could not reach a verdict in 1964. Beckwith was finally convicted of the murder in 1994. He remained in prison until his death in 2001 at age 80.
Byron De La Beckwith was born on November 9, 1920, in Colusa, California. After the death of his alcoholic father in 1926, Beckwith's mother moved back to her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi. When his mother passed away a few years later, Beckwith remained in the care of relatives in Greenwood.
After unsuccessful stints in college, Beckwith joined the Marines during World War II, receiving a Purple Heart for his service. He married in 1945 and had a son in 1946. Back in Greenwood, Beckwith became a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist Citizens' Council, a group that had been formed after the ruling in 1954's Brown v. Board of Education.
Killing of Medgar Evers
For a white supremacist like Beckwith, Medgar Evers was the embodiment of his worst fears. Working in Mississippi as the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Evers was a prominent spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement and its demands for racial equality. Despite being subjected to threats and attacks, Evers and his family remained in Jackson, Mississippi.
Early in the morning on June 12, 1963, Evers was getting out of his car at his home when he was shot in the back. He died soon afterward. Mississippi was a hotbed of conflict between segregationists and civil rights activists, but the killing drew particular attention. Beckwith—whose rifle was found at the scene, and whose fingerprint was on its scope—was quickly arrested.
The atmosphere in Mississippi was such that Beckwith received letters of support and donations for his defense fund while in prison. Two policemen also claimed to have seen Beckwith in Greenwood—more than 90 miles away from Jackson—on the night of the killing. When Beckwith's case went to trial in 1964, the jury was unable to reach a verdict. A retrial later that year resulted in another deadlocked jury. Both juries were made up entirely of white men.
Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, did not give up on bringing her husband's killer to justice. When a 1989 newspaper investigation revealed evidence that a Mississippi state agency had committed jury tampering in 1964, she pushed for a new trial. (As Beckwith had previously experienced mistrials, not an acquittal, he was not subject to double jeopardy.)
Conviction and Death
In 1990, Beckwith was indicted once more for killing Evers. After years of legal maneuvering, he was put back on trial in January 1994. Though Beckwith had consistently denied shooting Evers in public statements, he had not been as circumspect in private. Witnesses testified that Beckwith had bragged about killing Evers, whom he had referred to as a "chicken-stealing dog."
On February 5, 1994, Beckwith was convicted of Evers's murder. He received a life sentence. His appeals—Beckwith's lawyers argued he had been denied his right to a speedy trial—were unsuccessful. Beckwith remained in prison until he died at Jackson's University Medical Center on January 21, 2001. He was 80 years old.
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