Justice in black and white

Monday Book Review

June 12, 1995|By Harold Jackson

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. Little, Brown and Company. Index. 411 pages. $24.95.

I VIVIDLY REMEMBER the day Sixteenth Street BaptisChurch was bombed in Birmingham. I was 10 years old and hadn't gone to church that morning. Playing near the back door of our apartment, I heard the blast from less than five miles away. I didn't know what it was and didn't think much about it at the time.

It was later that I learned four little girls had been killed, one a schoolmate whose daddy had been our milkman. Adults spoke in whispers and looked grave the rest of that day. That night, porch lights were kept on throughout the apartment complex, and my daddy and other men stayed up until morning patrolling with guns.

Where would the racists strike next? The tension must have been similar to what black people in Jackson, Miss., felt when NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated there only three months before the Birmingham bombing.

As an adult I have tried to read just about everything I can get my hands on about that era in American history. "Ghosts of Mississippi," starts slowly but builds into one of the most compelling accounts of that period.

There is another parallel between the church bombing and the slaying of Evers, besides both occurring during the summer of 1963. In both cases it took years before any of the perpetrators were convicted of committing the crimes.

I was a cub reporter at the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald in 1977 when Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was convicted of murder in the death of Denise McNair. She was an 11-year-old student at my elementary school when the Sixteenth Street Church explosion took her life.

After 14 years, most black people in Birmingham had given up on anyone ever paying for that crime. Justice moved even less swift in the Evers case. Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted of murdering Evers on Feb. 5, 1994.

Ms. Vollers gives intricate details of the lives of both Evers and Beckwith leading up to the night that the civil rights leader was shot.

Through interviews with Evers' brother, Charles, she recounts their growing up in Decatur, Miss. The two little black boys were once singled out for derision by legendary racist Theodore Bilbo, who was making a speech in their town while running for the U.S. Senate.

"See those two little nigger boys sitting there. If we don't watch out, we will live to see the day when these two nigger boys will be asking to represent us in Congress," said the little man wearing a white suit and red suspenders.

Such treatment fueled Medgar Evers' drive to help his people. Medgar grew up to be a field director for the NAACP when it was at the forefront of social change in Mississippi. Charles, who had a wild streak in him, eventually settled down and took Medgar's place after his brother was assassinated.

Beckwith was actually born in California, which is where he first ,, saw robed Ku Klux Klansmen. After his father's death in 1926, Beckwith, then 6, returned to Mississippi with his mother. She died when Beckwith was 12.

The author clearly spent a great deal of time researching the book. However, at least one small error crept in: She calls Confederate President Jefferson Davis' last home "Belvoir." I have visited Beauvoir, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which Beckwith's aunt is said to have helped restore.

The strength of this book is neither its insights into the family backgrounds of Evers and Beckwith nor the account of the heinous murder. The most compelling reading is about the three Beckwith trials. The recount of the courtroom drama and how prosecutors were able to build a successful case against him a generation after the crime was committed is intriguing.

He was arrested just a few days after the slaying after being identified as the white man seen near the crime scene the night of the murder. An old Enfield rifle believed to have been used in the shooting was traced to Beckwith. He even had a cut over his eye that appeared to have been made by a scope after a gun recoiled.

But Beckwith wasn't convicted. He had an alibi backed up by witnesses who lied for him. There was a mistrial. A second trial in 1964 ended the same way.

That might be the end of it for other people. But Evers widow, Myrlie, wasn't about to give up on bringing her husband's killer to justice. The rest of the "Ghosts of Mississippi" details how she worked with Mississippi prosecutors to secure key pieces of evidence and have Beckwith tried a third time.

The last time, with a jury that didn't feel the Klan-produced pressure that existed in 1960s Mississippi, 75-year-old Beckwith was finally convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Harold Jackson is an editorial writer for The Evening Sun.

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