TV REVIEW : Evers Odyssey Ends in 'Southern Justice'

On June 12, 1963, black civil rights crusader Medgar Evers was fatally shot in the back by a sniper near his Mississippi home. Only this year, though, was now-elderly white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith convicted of murdering Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP.

The Evers story and the long, frustrating odyssey preceding the conviction of Beckwith--whose previous two trials for the slaying ended in hung all-white juries--make for a gripping hour of television in "Southern Justice: The Murder of Medgar Evers." Written and stylishly directed by talented BBC documentary filmmaker Christopher Olgiati, it airs at 10 tonight on HBO, tracing the converging paths of victim and assassin in the compelling manner of a shadowy suspense story.

Prosecutors reopened the case four years ago after press reports of new evidence of jury tampering in Beckwith's previous trials. After a third jury (of eight blacks and four whites) came in with a guilty verdict 30 years later, Evers' widow, Myrlie, shouted jubilantly: "Medgar, I've gone the last mile of the way."

Although Beckwith has always denied being the one who picked off the 37-year-old Evers with an Enfield hunting rifle, he never hid his joy over the murder of the civil rights leader. "No one has heard a lot of Martin Luther King since they put him in a coffin," he tells Olgiati in a 1991 interview. "Well, same thing with Medgar."

Through newsreel footage and clearly labeled re-enactments, the program artfully rewinds history to a time when, as narrator Julian Bond notes, the "currency of Mississippi was racial hatred." In the process, we see the civil rights activism--his probes of murder and mayhem against blacks--that made Evers so threatening to Mississippi's institutionalized racism. And Beckwith's first trial is especially well staged here, becoming a sort of mini-docudrama within a documentary.

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Although haunted by Evers, "Southern Justice" is less about a single man than Southern apartheid and the age that nourished it. Even with Myrlie Evers' acting as an eloquent surrogate for her dead husband, we learn much less about Medgar Evers, ironically, than about the man sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting him in the back. In fact, it's Beckwith's racist rhetoric, spoken just three years ago, that echoes the past most chillingly. As if exhumed from a graveyard of segregation, he reeks of hatred, ignorance and violence, his words smelling like embers from infinite burning crosses.

When spotting Beckwith at his third trial, Myrlie Evers "had this urge to be very primitive and attack," she recalls tonight. Now there is no need, for the ranting old racist impales himself on his own words. He calls blacks beasts. Yet the comparison on the screen--between him and Medgar and Myrlie Evers--speaks for itself.

* "Southern Justice: The Murder of Medgar Evers" airs tonight at 10:05 on HBO.

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