Guilty as Charged
By Elaine Davenport
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 8-11
In closing arguments at the January 27-February 5 trial of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, Hinds County, Mississippi Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter asked the jury, “Is it ever too late to do the right thing?” The jury’s answer was “Guilty as Charged.”
Like many events in this case, the unanimous verdict did not come quickly. It was read after five hours of 8-4 deadlock the first afternoon, an evening of sequestration at Jackson’s Edison Walthall Hotel, and more than an hour of deliberation the next morning—during which the jury foreman, the Rev. Elvage Fondren, 70, led a prayer session to help resolve the jury’s disagreement.
The pace of the Evers case has been both as slow and as sure as the pace of change in the South. More than thirty years have passed since Beckwith hid in a thicket of honeysuckle near the Evers home in Jackson on June 12, 1963, and shot the Mississippi State NAACP leader in the back as he got out of his car in his driveway. Evers led the struggle for better employment and housing for black residents, equal voting rights, and desegregation of schools, libraries, and other public facilities. Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 for the murder, and twice all-white, all-male juries deadlocked. Charges against him were dropped in 1969.
The next phase of the case came in the 1990s, when Mississippi had more elected black officials than any state. Beckwith and others had not changed their white supremacist views, but there had been a vast change in the law and the attitude of most of society since the 1960s. New evidence came to the attention of DeLaughter, assistant Hinds County prosecutor, who, at 35, was young enough to wonder why the case had never been solved.
A grand jury reindicted Beckwith for the Evers murder in December 1990. But Beckwith fought extradition from his home in Tennessee for ten months, then delayed the trial for more than two years with motions alleging violation of his constitutional rights of due process and a speedy trial. The old status quo seemed to be digging in its heels. Evers’ widow Myrlie said she began to despair that the trial would ever take place.
But it did, and the change in social attitudes that thirty years had brought was the biggest factor in the 1994 verdict. The jury this time was not all-male and all-white, but made up of seven women (five black) and five men (three black). Little new evidence was presented; in fact, crucial evidence including the bullet that killed Evers was missing this time. The prosecution had managed to round up the Enfield rifle, the telescopic sight with Beckwith’s fingerprint on it, and a transcript, all from the 1964 trials. Many of the same witnesses testified. And stand-ins read the words of witnesses who could not be found or who had died.
The scant new evidence there was added only circumstantial proof of the murder. Six witnesses testified that Beckwith had bragged to them about killing Evers (see New Witnesses, page 10). An enlargement of a picture that had been evidence in 1964 also was presented. The picture was of Beckwith’s white Plymouth Valiant. The area near the rearview mirror had been enhanced, using modern methods, to reveal a Masonic emblem hanging there, thus matching Beckwith’s car with one a witness had seen in a parking lot near the murder scene.
Mrs. Evers said she had been told “every reason why we could not pursue a third trial,” but kept pushing, nonetheless. She said at a press conference after the trial that whatever the verdict, the trial was a victory in itself. “Perhaps Medgar did more in death than he could have in life…. He lives through all of us.”
As the Evers case began to move through the courts, the idea became more firmly planted that other murder cases from the Civil Rights era might be brought to justice. A precedent had been set in 1977 with the successful reopening of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing case, in which four girls attending Sunday school had been killed. Klansman Robert Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder in that case. But, despite an eyewitness account of four white men planting the bomb, no one else has ever been charged.
National NAACP leader William Gibson, who attended the Evers trial February 2 in Jackson, called on the Department of Justice to investigate unsolved civil rights atrocities in the same way its Office of Special Investigation looks for Nazi war criminals. The call to reopen or investigate cases has come from every quarter, even
given that evidence may have disappeared and memories may have faded. “If you can ever solve a murder case, you should be able to prosecute it,” said Bill Baxley, the former Alabama attorney general who was responsible for reopening the Birmingham church bombing case.
There are many unresolved cases. Some of them cry out for justice because either the killer, like Beckwith, has bragged about the crime, or because the murder was witnessed but a case never brought. Carved into the black granite of the Civil Rights Memorial in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery are the names of forty persons who died in the civil rights struggle. Most of those deaths remain unsolved. The Civil Rights Research and Documentation Project, formerly at Ole Miss but now directed from Boston by Dr. Ronald Bailey, has found that between 1889 and 1940, “almost 3,100 Black people were lynched in the U.S., mostly in poor rural areas of the South.”
A highly visible stride has been made with the Evers case. And at least two other cases from the same decade now have been reopened. They are:
VERNON DAHMER A well-off businessman and local NAACP president, Dahmer died in January 1966 after Klansmen shot at and firebombed his home near Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He had offered to pay poll taxes for those who could not afford the fee to vote. President Lyndon Johnson ordered an FBI investigation and fourteen Klansmen were charged with arson and murder. Only three were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Sam Bowers, then the Imperial Wizard of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, known as the most violent Klan group in the South, was tried twice and twice the jury deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction. Glenn White, Forrest County District Attorney, has searched for transcripts of the Bowers trials, hired an investigator, and is considering reopening the case. “It’s never too late,” says Dahmer’s son Dennis, echoing the words of Assistant District Attorney DeLaughter in the Evers case.
ONEAL MOORE was shot in the head June 2, 1965, by nightriders in Varnado, Louisiana, and died instantly. He and his partner were the first black deputies in the sheriff’s department of Washington Parish, known to have one of the largest Klan memberships per capita in
the country. Police arrested Ernest Ray McElveen, who belonged to several segregationist groups, but charges were dismissed and the murder never solved. The FBI has reopened the case, which was the subject of an episode of the television program “Unsolved Mysteries” several years ago.
Other cases, both well-known and obscure, beg for justice:
MICHAEL SCHWERNER, JAMES CHANEY, and ANDREW GOODMAN. These young civil rights workers were investigating a fire at the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where they were soon to conduct a Freedom School. On June 21, 1964, they were arrested and held in jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi, then released at 10 p.m. and intercepted by Klansmen. They were shot and their bodies buried in an earthen dam. Imperial Wizard Bowers (who figured in the Dahmer case), Neshoba County Chief Deputy Cecil Price, and six other Klansmen were convicted of a federal charge of conspiracy to deprive the three young volunteers of their civil rights. But the state has never brought murder charges.
EMMETT TILL. The murder of this black 14-year-old on August 28, 1955, was the subject of an article in Look magazine, in which J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant said they beat the youth, shot him in the head, wired a 75-pound cotton gin fan to his neck and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. A Chicago resident, Till was in Money, Mississippi for the summer and had dared to whistle at Bryant’s wife. Milam and Bryant were tried and found not guilty by an allmale, all-white jury who deliberated just
over one hour. The case is considered pivotal because such an outrageous act against a young person made Till a symbol of the struggle for equality and galvanized the early civil rights movement. Evers, who had become the first NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi in 1954, investigated the murder and attended the trial. Milam is now dead. Bryant is still alive, but having been acquitted once of the murder, cannot be tried again for the same offense.
LAMAR SMITH. On August 13, 1955, Smith went to the Lincoln County courthouse in Brookhaven, Mississippi, as part of his energetic campaign to organize black voters. He was shot as he stood on the courthouse lawn arguing with several white men. No one would testify as to what many had witnessed, and the three men arrested for murder went free. The grand jury’s report said that “although it was generally known or alleged to be known who the parties were in the shooting, yet people standing within twenty or thirty feet at the time claim to know nothing about it.”
Just as the end of the Nazi atrocities against Jews did not mean the end of anti-Semitism, one guilty verdict in an old civil rights murder case does not mean the end of bigotry.
But reopening the Evers case did bring some gains. District Attorney Ed Peters summed up the case: “A bragging murderer has been convicted.” Mrs. Evers saw the verdict as a way to “cleanse the state as it has our family.” And she reminded those who are still alive with a murder on their conscience to “always look over their shoulder because there may be someone like me and my family who will push to see that justice is done and never give up.”
Free-lance journalist and Southern Changes contributing editor Elaine Davenport is the associate producer of an upcoming HBO documentary on Medgar Evers.