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Mississippi Turning : Bizarre Events, Twists May Culminate in Revival of the Medgar Evers Murder Case

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-seven years after her husband’s death, Myrlie Evers believes that divine intervention may help resolve one of the most notorious and pivotal slayings of the Civil Rights era.

“I was reared by a grandmother who loved to quote the Bible,” Evers says. “I can’t do it as she did but one of her favorites was, ‘All things happen for good for those who love the Lord.’ One of the others that she would use was, ‘Unto everything there is a season.’ And I have always believed, for whatever reason, that this case would be reopened.”

Evers speaks with the confidence of someone who might have given the Almighty a nudge or two. At 57 she is an impressive woman, eloquent and strong-willed, determined that the final, conclusive word on her husband Medgar Evers and his violent end will be written.

Her faith was partially vindicated last month when Byron De La Beckwith, 70, was indicted for the third time in the June 12, 1963, murder of the civil rights leader in Jackson, Miss. Beckwith, who has consistently denied guilt, is in custody in Chattanooga, Tenn., where Monday he lost a round in his extradition fight when a judge denied Beckwith’s challenge to the proceedings. He was given until next week to appeal the ruling, however. Meanwhile, Mississippi prosecutors have cautioned that the case might run into other legal roadblocks and might never come to trial. Two previous trials on the murder charge--in 1964--ended when the all-white juries deadlocked.

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Behind these stark facts, the revival of the Evers case is a story of improbable characters and bizarre events that almost defy imagination. If a single strand in the complicated web had broken, the case might still be locked in the past.

The turning point was a library patron’s discovery of a 16-year-old book written by a member of the John Birch Society. The book led to a potentially important new witness in the case--a former Ku Klux Klansmen and FBI informant who allegedly heard Beckwith admit the murder at a Klan rally. The missing murder weapon itself also resurfaced--from the closet of a former judge.

“Words can’t describe what this case has involved,” says Bobby DeLaughter, the 37-year-old Hinds County, Miss., assistant district attorney who headed up the 14-month investigation. For DeLaughter, who grew up in Jackson, the investigation was an education in the bitterness of the battles over integration. “I could talk for hours about this case . . . the evolution of my own thoughts . . . . I was in the third grade at the time (of the Evers murder) and I was interested in playing football and basketball in the back yard,” he says.

Evers hints that other surprises may be coming. Declining to elaborate, she says that “pieces of material (related to the case) started reappearing from dark, deep secret rooms . . . pieces of information that were being found at different points around the city (Jackson, Miss.) related to the case.”

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Indeed, the new evidence seems to have surfaced like artifacts from the past.

When Medgar Evers was shot, John F. Kennedy was President, men had not landed on the moon, American involvement in the Vietnam War was just beginning and the Civil Rights struggle was tallied daily in shootings, beatings, sit-ins, marches, boycotts and church-burnings.

Myrlie Evers was a 30-year-old woman with three children aged 9, 8 and 3. After the shooting, she went on to remarry and build a new life in California, becoming an oil company executive and, today, a Los Angeles public works commissioner. Through the years she was driven not only to hope for justice, but to work for it. Finally, she says, her persistence began to pay off--with maybe a little help from above.

* Among other things, the revival of the Evers case hinges on an obscure 1975 book, the product of a collaboration between two members of the right-wing John Birch Society--one a preacher and former undercover informant for the FBI, the other a writer, researcher and magician. The book contains a one-paragraph reference to an alleged admission by Beckwith that he had indeed killed Evers. The book, “Klandestine,” figures in the case because a person prosecutors will not identify checked it out of a library in Jackson and brought it to their attention.

* Myrlie Evers herself supplied prosecutors with another vital document--the three-volume transcript of the first trial, essential to reconstructing the case.

Evers, who has maintained strong ties in Mississippi throughout her years in California, recalls that when she first discussed with prosecutors the reopening of the case, she “was shown a legal folder with about two or three pieces of paper, and they said, ‘This is all we have.’ ” Official copies of the transcripts apparently had been thrown out because Mississippi did not maintain records of mistrials. However, Evers did not immediately turn over the transcript, which she kept in a safe deposit box. She waited until “I saw that there was some effort being made to reconstruct the case.”

* In another strange twist, the murder weapon, a 1917-model military rifle that had been missing in the years since the second trial, reportedly turned up in the closet of a former judge, who also happened to be the father-in-law of a prosecutor in the case. “I shake my head with total amazement with that one . . . .,” Evers says of the rifle’s discovery.

The high-powered rifle, which was found at the murder scene where it had been abandoned by the assailant, figured prominently in the first two Beckwith trials. A vocal segregationist and gun enthusiast, Beckwith was linked to the rifle by a fingerprint on its telescopic sight.

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Beckwith, who continues to advocate white supremacy, was tried twice for the killing in 1964 but freed after the all-white juries deadlocked. Charges against him were dropped in 1969.

* More routinely, other new witnesses have come forward who reportedly place Beckwith in Jackson the night of the murder. Beckwith has asserted that he was in another town that night. One of those witnesses, the Rev. Robert L.T. Smith, 90, is a personal friend of the Evers family.

Myrlie Evers defends the fact that Smith did not come forward earlier. “You have to understand that period of time and what was happening,” she explains. “Even if you had seen the person pull the trigger, there would be a reluctance to say anything because your life was on the line, your business was on the line, and there was an attitude, and rightly so, that it would make no difference whatsoever if you said anything.”

Calls for a reopening of the case began after the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published a series of articles in 1989 about the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency created in the 1950s to preserve segregation. The paper reported that the commission helped Beckwith’s defense screen potential jurors. Evers says she seized on the report to push for a new investigation into her husband’s murder, meeting with prosecutors on a trip to Mississippi in December, 1989.

But, according to DeLaughter, “Klandestine” was crucial to bringing the case to a grand jury.

Begun by William H. McIlhany II as a senior thesis at Washington and Lee University, “Klandestine” recounts the undercover career of Delmar Dennis, a former Ku Klux Klan member who became disenchanted with the Klan and became an FBI informant. Issued by conservative publisher Arlington House, the book sold fewer than 3,000 copies, according to McIlhany, who adds that he sold many of those copies himself while lecturing for the Birch Society.

In the book’s one reference to Beckwith, the alleged killer is quoted as telling a Klan meeting, “Killing that nigger (Evers) gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children. We ask them to do that for us. We should do just as much. So, let’s get in there and kill those enemies, including the President, from the top down!”

The passage, DeLaughter says, “gave us our first real hope of being able to come up with something new” in the case.

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Still, it took DeLaughter’s office several months to locate and interview Dennis, who now lives in Sevierville, Tenn., where he publishes regional and religious books under the Covenant House imprint. Dennis did not testify before the grand jury but is expected to take the stand if the latest case comes to trial.

The testimony of Dennis, 50, will stem from his three years as an FBI informant on Klan activities in Mississippi from 1964 to 1967, the period when he heard Beckwith’s alleged confession to the Evers slaying. It will not be the first time Dennis has testified in a civil rights case. He was an important witness in the trial of Klan members charged in the death of three civil rights workers in 1964. Those killings were the basis of the recent movie “Mississippi Burning.”

Dennis, who in the late 1960s was sponsored by the Birch Society to lecture on his undercover role, said in a telephone interview, “I never felt like I knew a lot about (the Evers) case . . . I was surprised that one paragraph (in the book “Klandestine”) would cause such a stir.”

Dennis also described himself as bitter that he has gotten little credit for his often dangerous undercover role.

“I have never received any thanks, not a note, not a letter, not a phone call from any civil rights person in all these years,” Dennis said. Yet, his undercover work “has just caused devastation to my whole life,” he said.

Citing his Birch Society membership, Dennis, who also is a minister of a small church in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., said he probably has gotten little recognition because he does not fit any convenient stereotypes.

“I’ve always stood in the middle and I’ve always stood alone,” he said.

Once a committed segregationist and still a religious and political conservative, Dennis said he turned against the Klan because it offended his religious beliefs.

The Birch Society, which has sometimes been associated with racists but staunchly maintains that it is non-racist, is best known for its strident anti-communism, a stridence that cast the society into disrepute. For example, founder Robert Welch once called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a communist dupe.

Ironically, author McIlhany, a native of Roanoke, Va., who now lives in Los Angeles, credits the society, which he joined at age 14, with saving him from his own incipient racism.

” . . . the John Birch Society first of all explained to me that if we believe in individualism, in perceiving people as individuals and evaluating them as individuals, we don’t put them into categories and put a label on them, whether it’s class or race or whatever and evaluate them according to that group label or that collective,” McIlhany said in an interview.

“So the Birch society pointed out to me that racism is just a racial version of collectivism. So, if you’re going to be anti-Semitic or racist, you might as well be a communist because basically you’re a collectivist.”

Like Dennis, McIlhany, 39, is surprised that “Klandestine” has found a second life in the Evers case. “I often thought about the fact that Beckwith is still walking around unpunished. . . . ,” he said. But he noted that many crimes thought to have been committed by the Klan were never prosecuted and that he eventually “forgot” about the passage in a book he had begun as a college student in the early 1970s.

McIlhany, who worked almost full-time for the Birch Society for six years and also is a professional magician, said he wrote “Klandestine” because “I was really impressed with (Dennis) as a hero and I’m kind of a hero-worshiper.”

If Beckwith is ultimately tried and convicted for the Evers killing, McIlhany said he will be pleased his book had a role.

“I’m very satisfied if the book--and most importantly Delmar’s work and efforts for so many years--can result in justice,” he said.

Meanwhile, Myrlie Evers hopes that the latest indictment will help her at last “close the door” on the murder of her husband.

“I think of Medgar every day. . . . It’s extremely difficult during the holidays even after all this time. We were married on Christmas Eve, 1951, and there’s always a litle something there,” she says. “I look at our grandchildren and find myself wishing that he had lived to see them. . . .

“I look at what is happening today in our society and I see a retraction of all of these things that Medgar worked so hard for and I can’t help but think about him. So it’s there every day. I live with it every day, the good memories, the encouragement, the wisdom that he had, as well as the negative of losing him and how I lost him.”

Evers hopes that somehow the reopening of the case will lead to a reassessment of her first husband’s life. Too often, she said, he is mentioned only as the leader of a boycott in Jackson and remembered primarily for the way he died.

She points out that he was a World War II volunteer who returned to Mississippi determined to change the status of blacks. He was the first black to apply to the University of Mississippi, she says. She remains proud that he “took on the NAACP job when no one else dared take on the responsibility as the sole spokesperson for blacks in a state and society where you were saying, ‘Here I am, kill me,’ if you took such a position.”

Evers acknowledged that she has been urged to drop her pursuit of the case.

“There have been well-meaning friends who said: ‘Myrlie, you have gone on with your life. Why are you dragging this up? It’s going to hurt you.’ she explains. “And it does hurt .. . . And then there are those who have said to me: ‘Let him (Beckwith) alone, he’s 70 years old.’ ” She slams her hand on the desk. “ Big deal. My husband’s dead.”

Later, she calmly recounts the night of the murder and how she had allowed the three children to stay up late to wait for their father, who was shot in the back as he got out of his car in front of their house.

“I can’t let it go, I just can’t,” she said. “One of the regrets that I have is that I was not with Medgar when he took his last breath. . . . I fought, and when I say fought I mean physically fought to go in the car with him. He was put on a mattress and put in a station wagon and taken to the hospital and well-meaning neighbors held me back.

“They kept me from riding with him and I know they were doing what they thought was best. But I had walked every step of the way with him and I wanted to be there when he took his last breath and I knew that was it. We had talked about it, we had tried to comfort each other that it wasn’t going to happen and finally realized--let’s stop it. And I think that last month was the closest time Medgar and I had had in all our years of marriage.”

After a pause, Evers continued, “This is going the last mile of the way. After this trial, regardless of the outcome, I don’t believe there are any other legal methods available and I’ve got to go the last mile of the way. That’s all.”


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