By Jerry Mitchell, The Clarion-Ledger
The conviction of the murderer of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers took place because of a combination of hard work, dedication and sheer luck.
In 1989, according to Clarion-Ledger reports, secret files showed that at the same time the state was prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith in 1964 for Evers’ murder, another arm of the state was secretly assisting Beckwith’s defense, trying to get him acquitted.
That other arm was the state’s segregationist spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was headed by the governor.
This revelation prompted Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to call for reprosecution of her late husband’s June 12, 1963, killing outside their Jackson, Miss., home.
Bobby DeLaughter took up the case as a prosecutor. Not long after that, Jackson police found a box that contained photographs of the crime scene of Evers’ killing, including Beckwith’s fingerprint lifted from the murder weapon.
DeLaughter eventually gained the trust of Evers’ widow, and she shared her copy of the transcript from the 1964 trial.
The greatest luck of all came when DeLaughter found the murder weapon in his late father-in-law’s closet.
In December 1989, a Hinds County grand jury indicted Beckwith, who was convicted of murder in his 1994 trial. Beckwith received a life sentence in prison, where he died in 2001.
Made for change
Medgar Evers fought the Nazis an ocean away, only to return from World War II and face the enemy of racism at home in Mississippi.
On his 25th birthday, July 2, 1945, he and his brother, Charles, led a group of war veterans to the courthouse in Decatur to register to vote, only to be met by a group of armed white men.
From that day forward, Evers vowed to fight “second-class citizenship” for African Americans.
After being turned down for admission in 1954 to the University of Mississippi School of Law, Evers decided to take on a newly created job of field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP.
Taking the job landed him quickly on a “death list” along with other black leaders who dared to challenge state-sponsored segregation.
Evers’ widow said those were frightening days, living with constant threats and never knowing what might befall her husband.
She remembered other African Americans crossing the street, just so they wouldn’t be seen on the same street with her husband, lest they become targets, too.
In 1955, when Evers investigated the killing of Chicago teenager Emmett Till near Greenwood, Miss., he dressed to blend in with sharecroppers who worked the Delta land.
“He used to go up in overalls and jumpers and old hats,” recalled his brother, Charles. “He had to do that in those days. If he hadn’t, he would have been killed much sooner.”
Leslie Burl McLemore, who as a student at Rust College in 1962 met Evers, said the civil rights pioneer served during a time when simply working for voting rights meant you were marked for death.
“Those nine years he worked from 1954 to 1963, he probably did more than any one person to bring substantial change to Mississippi,” McLemore said.
Evers built bridges that enabled different civil rights groups to cooperate, he said. “His personality and political acumen made it possible for these organizations to work together.”
Hours after watching President Kennedy call on Americans to get rid of laws and attitudes that fostered prejudice, Medgar Evers returned to his home in Jackson, Miss., after midnight, only to be shot in the back by Beckwith.
Beckwith left his murder weapon behind in a honeysuckle bush, and police found his fingerprint on the rifle. Eyewitness testimony put him and his car at the scene.
But two police officers swore under oath they had seen Beckwith the night of Evers’ assassination — 100 miles away in Greenwood.
Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 but walked away free after all-white juries could not convict him in two trials.
Thirty years later, the alibi testimony of those officers was called into question, and in 1994, a jury convicted Beckwith.
Case opens floodgates
Beckwith’s conviction led to something unforeseen.
Families began to see the possibilities that justice might still be possible in other killings, even after three decades.
Beckwith "was so mean and so hateful that I thought, `If they could get him, they could get anyone,' " said Lisa McNair, whose sister, Denise, was one of four girls killed by the Klan in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
The conviction in Jackson prompted authorities elsewhere to look anew at other crimes of the past, including the 1966 killing of NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, Miss., leading to the 1998 conviction of one-time Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers.
Talk of opening these cases also inspired authorities in Louisiana, Alabama and Florida.
“It was like a light bulb going off with prosecutors,” said former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, who led the successful prosecution against two suspects in the bombing. “It made us think, ‘You can try these old cases after all.’”
The 2007 conviction of James Ford Seale in the Klan’s 1964 abduction and killings of two black teenagers, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, marked the 23rd conviction that authorities have seen since the case against Beckwith was reopened.
Jones said none of these convictions would have taken place if prosecutors in Jackson hadn’t first taken up the case against Beckwith.
Charles Evers - who took his younger brother's place as NAACP field secretary in Mississippi and later served as mayor of Fayette, Miss. - praised the progress that's been made in his native state since he and blues legend B.B. King began the Medgar Evers-B.B. King Homecoming after his brother's slaying.
Jackson’s post office and airport now bear his brother’s name, and the airport recently opened the Medgar Wiley Evers Pavilion in his honor.
“We’ve come a long ways,” Charles Evers said. “Forty-six years ago, we didn’t have a single black on the jury, and now they’re on all the juries.
“Forty-six years ago, we couldn't use the water fountains, and now we have the highest number of black elected officials. B.B. and I are so proud.”