Citing new evidence, Mississippi prosecutors Tuesday indicted a white supremacist for the 1963 murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, setting the stage for the accused assassin’s third trial and raising some Mississippians’ hopes that the state can shake its racist image.
Although Byron De La Beckwith, arrested Monday at his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn., on a fugitive warrant by Mississippi, “was vigorously prosecuted in 1964, those prosecutions did not have the benefit of certain evidence accumulated during the course of our investigation,” Dist. Atty. Ed Peters told a Jackson, Miss., news conference.
The indictment of Beckwith, 70, came after a Jackson grand jury heard two days of testimony about the murder of Evers, who was a 37-year-old NAACP official at the time he was slain on June 12, 1963, outside his Jackson home. His work had included leading black voter registration drives and petitioning the federal government on civil rights abuses.
The murder and the verdicts galvanized the civil rights movement, and provided a push for legislative reforms.
Beckwith, a Colusa, Calif., native, known around Mississippi for distributing racist pamphlets and recruiting for the White Citizens Council, was originally charged after his fingerprints were found on a rifle discarded near the scene. He was tried twice in 1964 by all-white juries that deadlocked. In 1969, the case was dismissed.
Peters did not disclose the new evidence, but said that individuals, both black and white, “have taken the courageous step of coming forward.”
Beckwith continued claims of innocence and vowed to fight extradition to Mississippi. Appearing frail and in poor health, Beckwith was in court in Chattanooga, Tenn., Tuesday, where he was released on $15,000 bond and ordered to reappear in court on Feb. 22.
“I’m going to resist tooth, nail and claw,” Beckwith said, “because I think all this is nonsense, poppycock and something to stir up.” At one point during his appearance, he said to reporters, “How many Jews are among you? I see one nigra man.”
The new indictment, much like last year’s commemoration of the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers, illustrates the wrenching process of Mississippi’s confronting its past, even as it struggles to focus on its future as part of the New South.
“This has really been an albatross around all our necks, black and white,” said Walter Gardner, a black man who is president of the Newton County Political Action League. “I think leadership of both races wants to shed the ugly reputation of the past and try to begin to build something new.”
In Indianola, Odell Guyton Durham, a social worker, noted that the case “is just one that is nationally known. There are (many) cases that never reached the papers, and (racial killings) are still happening.”
She said she hopes reopening the case “will make a white person who kills a black person know that he will not go free for the rest of his life.”
Several people asserted that only after prodding did prosecutors agree to reopen the case. Earlier this year, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that before one of Beckwith’s trials, state officials screened potential jurors and provided information to the defendant’s lawyers. Also, Evers’ widow, Myrlie, of Los Angeles vigorously pressed the case.
“Without a conviction in this case we must believe that everything Medgar fought and died for was meaningless,” she said.
Louis Armstrong, a Jackson City Council member who pushed to have the case reviewed, credited both white and black people with “an effort to convince the district attorney that it was in his interest to present the case to the grand jury. That says something positive about this community.”
Beckwith has not been shy about revealing his views on race relations. He told the Clarion-Ledger in a recent interview that, if indicted, he expected to be found not guilty if his case is tried before a jury of his peers.
When asked what he meant by a jury of his peers he answered “Like I am: white, right and on the Christian side of every issue.”