The Impact of Absence

Thirty-five years ago, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated in front of his home on the west side of Jackson, Mississippi. At the time of his death, Evers was 36—still near the beginning of a career as the most important leader of the African-American freedom struggle in the state. He was a man deeply committed both to his native soil and to the rightful destiny of black people upon it. Evers would be an old man now if he had lived, and Mississippi would be a better place.

The Evers assassination quickly entered the national litany of Southern horrors, especially after his accused killer escaped with two mistrials. Bob Dylan wrote a song about it. In subsequent years there were books and a made-for-TV movie. The death of Medgar Evers took a niche, between the lynching of Emmett Till (1955) and the killing of four civil rights workers in Neshoba County (1964), in the list of things people in the rest of the country knew about Mississippi.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years thinking about Medgar Evers, his death and his killer. Any conscious person from Mississippi would. The killing, and Evers’ subsequent absence from the scene, had an enormous impact on the course of our history.

It also had an enormous impact on me. Of all the cataclysmic events that struck my home state during my childhood, this one hit closest to home. Byron De La Beckwith, the man who killed Medgar Evers, came from my hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi.

A HERO TO SOME, Beckwith came home after his second trial to a welcome banner downtown. The local police would put him in the front seat and drive around the parts of town where black people lived, just for fun. Beckwith went to the Independent Methodist Church (founded to protest Methodist support for the civil rights movement), and continued his lifelong habit of writing letters to the editor of the local paper denouncing the omnipresent blacks, Jews, and Communists.

In 1967, Beckwith ran for lieutenant governor. One Saturday afternoon in the spring of that year, when I was 13, I was at the Paramount Theater in my hometown to see a James Bond movie. The Paramount was an old theater. The aisles were covered with thick red carpet and the cement floors were gooey from decades of spilt Cokes and crushed snack foods. As I settled into my seat and waited for the show to begin, I could lean back and study the ornate plaster swirls around the ceiling or the dim house lights around the walls. The lights had globes with the theatrical masks for comedy and tragedy drawn on them.

Finally the lights went dark. The thick red- and gold-trimmed curtains were parted by unseen hands, and the play of light began upon the screen. There was a plug for the concession stand, a warning not to smoke, and then a moment of silent darkness.

White light hit the screen and then, where the color cartoon should have been, a black-and-white message board announced a paid political advertisement. A man, dressed in a dark suit and tie and seated at a desk, came on the screen. His skin was pasty white, and he wore thick, black-frame glasses. Below the glasses his nose protruded from his face; above them his forehead sloped sharply back. His hair was slicked back from the high crown of his head.

The man opened his mouth and said, "Hello, I’m Byron De La Beckwith and I’m running for lieutenant governor of the sovereign state of Mississippi." Even now it is hard to describe the impression I received from the sight of Beckwith’s face projected onto the 40-foot screen and back into the open brains of unsuspecting moviegoers. It was as if the devil had entered my dreams.

I can’t remember what he said in that speech. But I’ve never forgotten the cold, clammy feeling I got. To my young adolescent self, Beckwith’s big-screen legitimization was all the evidence I needed that the world around me was rotten with hypocrisy and rife with danger. (Beckwith didn’t do very well in that election, by the way. Statewide he ran fifth in a field of six, but he did carry our home county of Leflore.)

Today, of course, Byron De La Beckwith is in jail. In 1991, the Jackson district attorney reopened the Medgar Evers case and indicted Beckwith for a third time. This time he was brought down to Jackson in chains to face a racially mixed jury and a fundamentally changed political culture. Beckwith was convicted, at last, and sentenced to life in prison.

This is all well-known. There’s been another round of books and movies about the reopening of the case, most notably Ghosts of Mississippi, starring Alec Baldwin and James Woods. For once Mississippi has been famous for doing the right thing, even if it was 30 years late.

Since the last retrial, Beckwith has appealed his conviction all the way up to the State Supreme Court, and lost. It now appears certain that Beckwith will die in prison. Since martyrdom has its own psychological rewards, that fate won’t be so bad for this old soldier of the Aryan Nation.

What makes it hard for Beckwith is that Mississippi has changed. It hasn’t changed enough, but it’s changed way too much for him. And in the new Mississippi, Byron De La Beckwith can never be a hero again. He’s just a pitifully deluded old man who finally has to pay his dues.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, lives and writes in Ripley, Mississippi.

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