Justice Delayed:

The Ghost of Medgar Evers

By Jennifer Lyons

"Whether Jackson and the State choose change or not, the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world."
Medgar Evers
May 20, 1963

The 1960's marked a time of monumental change in American history. In particular, the cry for an integration of American society penetrated both the political and the cultural mores of a deeply divided nation. With the possible exception of American involvement in Vietnam, no other issue so profoundly or so violently shaped the future of the country in the second half of the century. One of the leaders in this struggle was a young field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, whose life resonated throughout the African American communities of the era. His death culminated in a lengthy search for justice and is the focus of Rob Reiner's interesting but flawed film, The Ghosts of Mississippi.

Not surprisingly, the civil rights movement sparked brilliant leadership, passionate responses, vicious encounters, and a rising tide of anger and bitterness as well as of triumph. Murders, bombings and riots erupted in an attempt to impede the civil rights movement and the cause of integration.

At least one President, numerous politicians, judges, and civil rights advocates, found themselves the targets of assassins. One of many such leaders of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers, became a symbol of the struggle when he was ambushed and left to die in front of his wife and young children.

Evers, a leading voice for racial equality in Jackson, Mississippi, possessed a tenacity of purpose which shook the inner social and political structures within Jackson when he became the first person to fight for the desegregation of Mississippi State University. It was the beginning of a career dedicated to changing the status quo of southern segregation, but one that was cut short by assassination.

Shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, pulled his car into the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. As Evers stepped out of his car, a gun fired, shattering the silence of the night. Shot in the back, Evers dragged himself to the front porch as his wife, Myrlie Evers, and his three children rushed out to watch him bleed to death before them.

From the beginning, investigators suspected Byron de la Beckwith, a man known throughout Jackson for his racist beliefs and affiliation with white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Shortly after the murder, the police arrested Beckwith. Although no one had seen him pull the trigger, the murder weapon found at the scene was registered to the name of Byron de la Beckwith. With overwhelming evidence in the prosecution's favor, the first of three separate trials for the assassination of Medgar Evers began. In his film Ghosts of Mississippi, director Rob Reiner, focusing on the efforts of Myrlie Evers to bring the killer to trial, explores a struggle for justice that spanned three decades but finally led to the conviction of Beckwith for first degree murder.

Unfortunately, many Americans today have never heard the name of Medgar Evers, a man who willingly, and literally, put his life on the line of hate that divided the races in the South. Ironically, many young Americans, including African Americans, who grew up after these turbulent years have forgotten leaders, such as Medgar Evers, who brought about the powerful tides of change. By examining the extensive fight for justice endured by the Evers family, Reiner in The Ghosts of Mississippi, hoped to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

The movie is focused upon the framework of the justice system rather than upon Medgar Evers' personal life. As a result, an intimate look into the life of the civil rights advocate is lacking. That is unfortunate since Evers' life was a personally rich and courageous one. Although Evers strongly believed in nonviolent disobedience, violence was no stranger to him. In the late 1950's, Medgar suffered numerous indignities, including being physically assaulted on a public bus.

As the civil rights movement grew, threats against his life and the lives of his family became a constant reality. In response to death threats, Evers purchased several guns which he kept in the home. Nonviolence stopped at the threshold of his home, at which point, Evers vowed to protect his family. His three children were trained until it became second nature for them to immediately drop to the floor if they heard a loud sound or even a passing car late at night. Often jokingly, but always aware of the reality, Evers frequently said, "I may be going to heaven or to hell, but I'll be going from Jackson."

To ensure the historical accuracy of the movie, Myrlie Evers and other family members agreed to assist Reiner and work on the set. It was, initially, a burdensome task for Mrs. Evers. Because actor James Woods looked and carried himself so similarly to the real Byron de la Beckwith, all her anger came flooding back, preventing her from walking easily on to the set. For Mrs. Evers ghosts of the past were resurrected by the film. The opening scene which recreated the violent death of Evers as his family rushed to his side also brought back terrible memories. After firing, Beckwith is shown placing his rifle on the ground, turning, and confidently walking back into the woods towards his car. Instantly, Woods does a masterful job of capturing the sinister, racist, and arrogant character of Beckwith.

The film then quickly jumps ahead twenty-seven years. Beckwith proved accurate in his belief he would not be convicted for the murder of a man he, as well as many white Mississippians, considered to be a social agitator. The first two trials in the spring and fall of 1964 appeared to support this view. The blatant injustice, considering the totality of evidence against Beckwith, left many Mississippians with countless unanswered questions. Such questions refused to dissipate and, combined with the persistence of Evers' widow, eventually paved the way for a third and final trial. In 1991, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter drew the seemingly hopeless task of getting a conviction in a thirty year old murder.
A large measure of the movie follows the work of Bobby DeLaughter, played by Alec Baldwin, as he seeks to unravel the mysteries surrounding the miscarriage of justice. Following the first two trials, amazingly much of the evidence disappeared as judges and other law officials, like legal groupies, took souvenirs. Compounding the problem, many of the witnesses who testified earlier had died by 1991. DeLaughter had precious little upon which to build his case, but fortunately two amazing breaks changed the direction of the third trial.

In searching for remaining witnesses, the prosecution fortunately discovered a book published in 1975 entitled Klandestine: The Untold Story of Delmar Dennis and His Role in the FBI's War Against the Ku Klux Klan, by William H. McIlhany. Delmar Dennis, an active member of the Klan, became an FBI informant. It was during his affiliation with the KKK that Dennis heard Beckwith boast at a rally about assassinating Evers. Unable to bridle his perverse pride, Beckwith declared that killing Evers "gave him no more inner discomfort than women endure when they give birth to our children." Beckwith's past became one of the ghosts that would lead to his conviction. His arrogance ultimately provided DeLaughter with evidence of an admission to murder.

The second prosecutional breakthrough was even more startling. The murder weapon was discovered in DeLaughter's father-in-law's gun collection. A well-known circuit court judge, the prosecutor's father-in-law acquired the rifle after the first two trials.

With the weapon found, the State moved to exhume Medgar Evers' body to determine if the wound was compatible with bullets from the rifle. Reiner, who had obtained footage of newsreels, and private films of marches and protests of the era, now incredibly received permission from the Evers family to film when the remains were exhumed. To the amazement of all present, the body had barely begun to decompose. The coroner noted that Evers looked as if he had been buried only a few days rather than thirty years.

By 1994, DeLaughter was ready for a trial in which the jury would be crucial, even more so than usual. The juries of the first two trials, made up of all white men, left Beckwith with the certainty that he would not be convicted. Racism ran deep in Mississippi and Beckwith confidently had his finger on its pulse. In 1994, when the third trial began, the murderer displayed the same insolence, never questioning his ultimate freedom. The times had changed, however, over thirty years, as had the jury panel. Indeed, the third jury consisted of eight African Americans, an obvious difference from the earlier trials and indicative of broad changes in the entire legal system. Nevertheless, Beckwith never faltered in his brash attitude. In a confrontation with DeLaughter using the pejorative, Beckwith sneered that no jury in Mississippi would convict a white man of killing a black man. He was wrong.

In Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, author Adam Nossiteris recounts DeLaughter's summation. DeLaughter argued that the evidence could render no other verdict than guilty, contending that the ghosts of the past recreated the vicious murder within the courtroom. It was Beckwith's gun, "his fingerprint, his car, his scope, and last but not least, his mouth. When he thought he had beaten the system, he couldn't keep his mouth shut. He wants to take credit. . . .But he just don't [sic] want to pay the price for it."

On February 5, 1994, the jury announced its decision before a courtroom suffocating from tension and emotions. The jury foreman pronounced the words, "We find the defendant guilty..." Byron de la Beckwith received a life sentence for the first degree murder of Medgar Evers. The verdict rang sweet in the ears of the District Attorney's office and the Evers' family. Indeed, thirty years of pain and perseverance poured out of Myrlie Evers. Yet, as news spread of the conviction, it remained painfully obvious that many people in the South still did not understand the importance of the trial. While cheers of victory resounded through African American communities, many whites believed Myrlie Evers and Bobby DeLaughter had wrongfully awoken a part of their history which should remain buried beneath time. The ghosts were still walking amidst the people of the Delta.

Many historians and laymen agree that the most moving work published about the impact of Medgar Evers on the civil rights movement in the South is For Us, the Living written by Myrlie Evers in 1996. Another book which thoroughly explores the assassination, the first two trials in 1964, the final trial in 1994 and the imprint each left upon the New South is Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South by Maryanne Vollers published in 1996.