Racist killer's biography is revealing

March 29, 1994|By Judith Bolton-Fasman | Judith Bolton-Fasman,Special to The Sun

Before the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, there was the murder of Medgar Evers.

Evers' civil rights activism as field secretary for the NAACP in Jackson, Miss., had attracted the disdain of Southern segregationists. He was killed by a single bullet in the back on a June night in 1963 in his own driveway. Ironically, Evers' death galvanized the civil rights movement and helped to fulfill some of his greatest aspirations. It also recast the assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, from an eccentric segregationist into a violent racist.

Beckwith's odyssey is detailed in "Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers?" The book is the culmination of several years of correspondence between Reed Massengill and his uncle by marriage, Byron De La Beckwith.

Additionally, through his late aunt, Mary Louise Williams Beckwith, Mr. Massengill had unlimited and unique access to suitcases stuffed with letters and remembrances from her husband. Mr. Massengill has drawn an intimate and disturbing portrait that, at its best, is the "revelatory biography" described by its publisher. At other points the book is so cluttered with facts that the picture is marred.

Beckwith was born in Northern California to an alcoholic father who squandered his money and a fragile mother who suffered several nervous breakdowns. His father died when Byron was 5 and he moved with his mother to her native Greenwood, Miss. Seven years later, she died and he was brought up in genteel Southern poverty by two bachelor uncles.

Byron De La Beckwith's adolescence and young adulthood were marked by academic failures and social ostracism. He was shuttled among several private schools and finally graduated from high school at the age of 20. He enjoyed some success as a Marine in World War II and was awarded the Purple Heart during action in the Pacific Theater.

Stateside, he met his wife Mary Louise "Willie" Williams. Mr. Massengill's extensive interviews with his aunt reveal a marriage disrupted by domestic violence, alcoholism and economic difficulties.

It was not until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal" several school segregation cases, that Byron De La Beckwith regained the "acute sense of purpose to his life" that he had as a Marine. Mr. Massengill asserts that after the Supreme Court decision, White Citizens' Councils sprang up in Mississippi to "mobilize Mississippians against the [ruling]."

Beckwith immediately volunteered to be an investigator for his council in Greenwood. He noted on his application that he was qualified for the position because he was "rabid on the subject of segregation."

This was evident in the fliers he wrote and circulated against integration and in the intensely racist letters he wrote to local newspapers. "Believe it or not," he wrote in one such letter, "the NAACP, under the direction of its leaders, is doing a first class job of getting itself in a position to be exterminated."

The letter was prescient. The Evers murder weapon, found in front of his home, revealed a partial fingerprint that matched Beckwith's. An abundance of other physical evidence left little doubt that he was Medgar Evers' assassin. Nevertheless, two all-male white juries were unable to reach a verdict in 1964, allowing Byron De La Beckwith to flaunt for 30 years his notoriety as the man who killed Evers.

Beckwith's cavalier admissions of guilt as reported by three newly discovered witnesses, as well as evidence of jury tampering in Beckwith's second trial, enabled an assistant district attorney to win a new indictment against him in December 1990. In his third trial last month, he was found guilty of murdering Medgar Evers and sentenced to life in prison. As a key witness for the prosecution, Mr. Massengill effectively wrote the final chapter to the book by conveying Beckwith's virulent racism.

Most of "Portrait of a Racist" achieves the same impact as the author's courtroom testimony. It is a well-researched book that reconciles the public and private lives of Byron De La Beckwith. Although the book is thorough, it is also often redundant and speculative. For example, Mr. Massengill's repeated attempts at evaluating his uncle's mental state are weak and superfluous.

Still, "Portrait of a Racist" is an important document. Including the outcome of this last trial and highlighting Mr. Massengill's testimony might have allowed it to stand as the definitive record on its subject.

Ms. Bolton-Fasman is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers?"

Author: Reed Massengill

Publisher: St. Martin's

Length, price: 403 pages, $23.95

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