The NBC Learn series, "Finishing the Dream" continues in Jackson, Mississippi, where a panel of Civil Rights Era veterans and community activists discuss the social impact and changes brought about by the murder of activist Medgar Evers in 1963.
Finishing the Dream: Learning from the Civil Rights Era – Jackson Town Hall (part 4)
What was the impact of Medgar Evers’s death?
MAGGIE WADE, Anchor: A civil rights leader is gunned down in his own driveway. Decades later, a suspect is tried for a third time for the murder of NAACP Field Secretary, Medgar Evers.
While some, even the civil rights leader’s own neighbors, did not understand the point of trying a man so many years after the crime, it open the door for future cold cases of the civil rights period to be prosecuted, and proved justice can still be served even if it comes decades later. Let’s take a look back to February, 1994.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: [IN CLIP] In a Jackson, Mississippi courtroom today, thirty years after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered, a jury found the prime suspect guilty of the crime. NBC’s Kenley Jones was there.
KENLEY JONES, NBC NEWS: [IN CLIP] Immediately after the verdict, Byron De La Beckwith was taken into custody and booked at the county jail as he began serving his life sentence. He will be eligible for parole in ten years.
The outspoken segregationist had always been the prime suspect in the 1963 ambush slaying of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson. Twice before all-white juries failed to reach verdicts at Beckwith’s murder trials. But this time the jury was composed of eight blacks and four whites who found him guilty. District Attorney Ed Peters said finally justice has been done.
District Attorney ED PETERS: [IN CLIP] Really, honest-to-god and truth, justice has been done. A bragging murderer has been convicted.
JONES: [IN CLIP] Evers’s wife Myrlie rushed to his side the night he died. Today, she rejoiced at the verdict.
MYRLIE EVERS, MEDGAR EVERS’S WIDOW: [IN CLIP] All I want to do is say, yea, Medgar! Yea! Yea! Yea!
JONES: [IN CLIP] With two of her three children and other supporters at her side, she said the thirty year struggle to bring her husband’s killer to justice has focused attention on racism and the need to eradicate it.
MYRLIE EVERS: [IN CLIP] Perhaps Medgar did more in death than he could have in life. But he lives, and he lives through all of us.
WADE: Again, Jerry Mitchell, instrumental in helping bring this case to justice after so many years.
JERRY MITCHELL, Investigative Journalist, The Clarion Ledger: Brings back a lot of memories, uh, it brings back the memories of going to interview Byron De La Beckwith in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Uh, that was quite-- quite an experience. He insisted on walking me out to the car and, you know, he got me out to the car and said, “If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. If God does not punish you directly, several individuals will do it for him.”
So, his wife had made me a sandwich. I-- I think you can guess what I did with the sandwich. I mean, I-- I can make a long list of all the different things that-- that took place and-- and did happen. And Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in the exact same courtroom that he was tried nearly thir-- thirty years to the day. And that really kicked it off. That really began kind of the wave of looking at cold cases here. Not only here in Mississippi, but across the south and across the country.
Reverend KENNETH DEAN, Former Director, Mississippi Human Relations Council: I had a chance to visit with Byron De La Beckwith in Signal Mountain, too. Byron De La Beckwith was thought, even by his fellow associates in the Klan, to be a crazy man. And I can say that’s true. He walked me to the car and he threatened me by saying, “I’ve been accused of killing one person, and if I get any static from you being here today, I might could just do that again, couldn’t I brother Dean.”
But what I want to say is that as bad as racism is in the general public, that by and large there is a community out there of people who are not crazy, and who can be worked with, and who can hear Mr. Meredith and Mr. Perkins’s message that God is love. Because if God is love, there is potential for overcoming this problem, both in a general societal way, as well as in one-to-one relationships.
HOWARD BALLOU: We have a questioner now. Go ahead with your question sir.
CORTEZ MALLS: My name is Cortez Malls and I am a Public Policy and Education double major from the University of Mississippi. How did the death of Medgar Evers transform and reenergize the civil rights movement both in Mississippi and United States?
Mr. MITCHELL: Well, it was-- it was huge, it played a huge role. Uh, I mean, that before Medgar’s death there were, uh, no black police officers in Jackson, Mississippi, for example. The City of Jackson didn’t really have-- hardly any black employees.
And so, all those walls began to come down after-- after Medgar’s assassination. So, it played an extremely important role, I think, in terms of beginning to break down the barriers, specifically here in Jackson and-- and then that, of course, helped inspire too, I think, those who realized ‘let’s come work in Mississippi’ and Freedom Summer took place the following year.
Rev. DEAN: Don’t you think also that it was around the issue of, uh, his being shot—Medgar’s being shot that the justice department began--
Mr. MITCHELL: To get involved.
Rev. DEAN: --to take more active role and be realistic about racial justice.
Mr. MITCHELL: I believe it’s correct. And you’re right--the justice department began to get involved, FBI began more active -- they were involved in Medgar Evers’s investigation. They didn’t prosecute the case, but were involved in the investigation and actually arrested Beckwith in that case.
BALLOU: Well, forty years ago, law enforcement officers opened fire on the very campus we’re meeting on today. We’ll talk about the JSU shootings of 1970 when we return.
Synopsis: Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was born on July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi. In 1954, he became the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. As such, he organized voter-registration efforts, demonstrations, and economic boycotts of companies that practiced discrimination.