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Byron De La Beckwith; White Supremacist Served Life for '63 Killing of Medgar Evers

January 24, 2001|From Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — Byron De La Beckwith, the white supremacist convicted after three decades and three trials of assassinating civil rights leader Medgar Evers, has died while serving life in prison.

Beckwith, 80, died Sunday night at University Medical Center, where he had been taken from his prison cell.

Evers, a 37-year-old NAACP field secretary who pushed for an end to segregation, was shot in the back on June 12, 1963, after stepping out of his car to walk to his house.

Beckwith's philosophy left no room for blacks, Jews, Asians or any race other than white.

"There are only three kinds of people that live in Mississippi," Beckwith told the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., in an interview shortly before his arrest in 1990. "Whites, colored and trash, and there's very little trash in Mississippi."

Beckwith said that although he was "not willing to lay my life down to rid evil from this country," he was "willing to kill the evil in this country that would try to push me out."

Beckwith wore a Confederate flag pin on his lapel throughout the 15 days of jury selection, testimony and deliberation in the 1994 trial that sent him to prison.

The deer rifle used to kill Evers had been recovered in a nearby empty lot, and Beckwith's fingerprint had been found on it. But the former fertilizer salesman insisted he was 90 miles away, in Greenwood, when Evers was murdered.

Two all-white juries deadlocked in trials in 1964.

Three years later, Beckwith ran for lieutenant governor and finished fifth among six candidates, with more than 34,000 votes. In 1973, he was convicted of possessing dynamite without a permit and served five years in prison.

Twelve years ago, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, asked that the case be reopened, and then-Hinds County Assistant Dist. Atty. Bobby DeLaughter agreed, even though he faced daunting challenges.

"At the very beginning . . . we didn't have anything," DeLaughter said. "The D.A.'s file was nowhere to be found. We did not have the benefit of a trial transcript to know who the witnesses were. None of the evidence had been retained by the court."

But DeLaughter and his officers stumbled across new evidence, including negatives of photos of the crime scene and witnesses who testified that Beckwith had bragged about "beating the system."

The Clarion-Ledger reported in 1989 that secret files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission showed it had aided Beckwith's defense in his second trial by screening potential jurors.

The commission, a state agency formed to safeguard segregation in Mississippi, detailed jurors' racial views and their ancestry, and listed those likely to be "fair and impartial," including a white member of the pro-segregation Citizens' Council, a group Beckwith joined in 1954.

At Beckwith's final trial, eight of the 12 jurors were black.

He was convicted of murder, and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1997.

Born in Colusa, Calif., Beckwith moved to Mississippi with his widowed mother when he was 5.

He made a living selling tobacco, candy, fertilizer and firewood.

Beckwith is survived by his wife and a son from his first marriage.

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