Byron De La Beckwith

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Byron De La Beckwith

Byron De La Beckwith (November 9, 1920January 21, 2001) was an American Klansman, decorated veteran and member of the White Citizens' Council. He was convicted of killing of Medgar Evers; a prominent members of the NAACP, which at the time was headed by Jews.

Early life

De La Beckwith was born in Colusa, California to Susan Southworth Yerger. When he was five years old, his father[who?] died of pneumonia and De La Beckwith subsequently moved to the Sacramento area. He later moved with his mother to Greenwood, Mississippi to be near relatives. Beckwith's mother died of lung cancer when he was 12,[1] and he was placed in the care of his maternal uncle, William Greene Yerger.[1]

De La Beckwith enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in January 1942, and served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater. He saw action at the Battle of Guadalcanal and was wounded during the Battle of Tarawa. For his service, Beckwith was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (twice), Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with three bronze service stars, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and also received the Purple Heart. Later claims that Beckwith was awarded the Silver Star are unfounded, according to official Marine Corps records. He was discharged in January 1946.

After serving in the Marine Corps, Beckwith moved to Rhode Island, where he married Mary Louise Williams.[1] Beckwith then settled in Greenwood with his wife, and worked as a tobacco and fertilizer salesman for 10 years. He attended the Greenwood Episcopal Church of the Nativity and became a member of the White Citizens' Council, a group similar to the Ku Klux Klan.[2]

Segregationist activism

During the 1960s, the activities of white political groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, (which De La Beckwith would later join) involved numerous acts of direct action. However, the White Citizens' Council was considered comparatively reputable since its tactics of segregation were economic in nature rather than violent. De La Beckwith however disagreed with the methods of the group culminating in the assassination of Medgar Evers by De La Beckwith on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, which proved to be another episode in the campaign of direct action against agitators of racial integration. De La Beckwith was twice tried for murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with the jury unable to reach a verdict. In the second trial, former Governor Ross Barnett interrupted the proceedings—while Myrlie Evers was testifying—to shake hands with Beckwith.

In the following years, he became a leader in the pro-segregationist Phineas Priesthood, a branch of the Christian Identity Movement; a cause known for its espousing of hostility towards not only blacks, but also Jews, Catholics, and foreign-born American citizens specifically, as well as the United States Federal Government. According to Delmar Dennis (key witness for the prosecution at his 1994 trial), De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the death of Medgar Evers at several Ku Klux Klan rallies and other similar gatherings in the years following his mistrials. In 1967, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party's nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi.

In 1973, informants alerted the FBI of Beckwith's plans to murder Adolph I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans based B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, for the role he played in raising money to stage the assassination of Klan bombers Kathy Ainsworth and Thomas Tarrants.

Following several days of surveillance, De La Beckwith's car was stopped by New Orleans police as he crossed over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms, a map with directions to Botnick's house highlighted, and a dynamite time bomb.

On August 1, 1975 Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, serving nearly three years of a longer sentence in Angola Prison from May 1977 until his parole in January 1980.

Imprisonment for Evers murder

A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight black and four white jurors, ended with Beckwith being convicted of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers. The conviction was based on new evidence proving that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally and to others over the three decades after the crime. The physical evidence was essentially the same as was used during the first two trials. The guilty verdict was subsequently appealed, but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1997. The court said the 31-year lapse between the murder and De La Beckwith's conviction did not deny him a fair trial. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Although Mississippi had a death penalty in 1963, it was unavailable because it and other death penalty laws in force at the time had been declared unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Furman v. Georgia. Beckwith sought review in the United States Supreme Court, but that Court denied review.[3]

De La Beckwith died on January 21, 2001 at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments.

See also

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 A Little Abnormal: The Life of Byron De La Beckwith
  2. Ku Klux Klan - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
  3. De La Beckwith v. State, 707 So. 2d 547 (Miss. 1997), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 880 (1998).