Byron De La Beckwith PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 30 October 2008 15:30

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Byron De La Beckwith

Born: November 9, 1920, Colusa, California

Died: January 21, 2001, Jackson, Mississippi

Age: 80

Cause of death: Heart disease.

Notable because: He provides so colorful an illustration of how Christian values can be used to serve the darkest of intentions.

 

De La Beckwith was an American white supremacist and the convicted murderer of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Beckwith was born in California, but orphaned and raised in Greenwood, Mississippi from the age of five. He became an ardent supporter of segregation and joined the Ku Klux Klan. De La Beckwith was a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, and was awarded the Silver Star. He had three turbulent marriages to the same woman and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

During the 1960s the Klan was involved in numerous acts of violence and terrorism. Medgar Evers' assassination, on June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, was another episode in the Klan's violent campaign against racial integration and civil rights for African-Americans.

De La Beckwith was twice tried for murder in 1964. Both trials ended in mistrials with the all-white jury unable to reach a verdict. In the following years, he became a leader in the Phineas Priesthood, a branch of the Christian Identity movement known for espousing extreme white supremacist, anti-government, anti-gay, and anti-abortion ideologies.

According to Delmar Dennis (key witness for the prosecution at his 1994 trial), De La Beckwith boasted of his role in the murder at Klan rallies and other white supremacist gatherings in the years following his mistrials. In 1967 he announced his candidacy as an independent for governor of Mississippi. He received 35,000 votes, finishing 5th out of 6 candidates on the ballot.

In 1973 informants alerted the FBI of Beckwith's plans to murder A.I. Botnick, director of the New Orleans based B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, for comments Botnick had made about southerners and race relations. Following several days of surveillance De La Beckwith's car was stopped by New Orleans police as he crossed over the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge. Among the contents of his vehicle were several loaded firearms (including a fifty-caliber machine gun), 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 three years in Angola Prison which he served from May 1977 until January 1980. A fuller account of these incidents is found in Bobby Delaughter's book Never Too Late, inspiration for the film Ghosts of Mississippi.

A third trial in 1994, before a jury of eight African-American and four Caucasian jurors, ended with Beckwith being convicted of the murder of Evers. The conviction was based, in part, on new evidence proving that he had boasted of the killing 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 ambush slaying and Mr. Beckwith's conviction did not deny him a fair trial.

Sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, De La Beckwith died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2001 in Jackson, Mississippi, aged 80. He had suffered from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments.

The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the murder and 1994 trial. James Woods portrayed De La Beckwith in an Academy Award-nominated performance.

De La Beckwith was the subject of the 1963 Bob Dylan song "Only a Pawn in Their Game", which deplores Evers' murder and the racist South, and dismisses De La Beckwith and his actions as a product of his environment.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:29
 

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