A Decatur, Mississippi native and Alcorn A&M graduate, Evers once worked as a traveling insurance salesman, a job that he later said fully awakened him to the plight of fellow black Mississippians. The work prompted him to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], and in 1954 he was named Mississippi’s first field secretary.
Evers’ efforts to garner equal rights for Mississippi’s blacks and his work to tell the nation about his state’s strict segregation incurred the wrath of many white supremacists.
He organized sit-ins for equal access to public accommodations and mounted major voter registration campaigns.
An outspoken proponent of desegregation — a radical cause in 1950s Mississippi — Evers fought for the enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision outlawing desegregation in schools. He also championed equal voting rights and advocated boycotting businesses owned by racists.
Assassination and Mistrials
Evers’ lengthy list of civil rights fights and victories made him a target for militant white supremacists.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, a gunman hid in the honeysuckle bushes near the Evers’ driveway. As the activist walked from his car to his house, the sniper opened fire, shooting Evers in the back. He died in front of his two small children.
The suspect in his murder, white supremacist Byron De la Beckwith, was quickly apprehended. The gun used to kill Evers was retrieved with fresh fingerprints on it.
However, two eyewitnesses, both white policemen, claimed to have seen the KKK member in Greenwood, Mississippi, 60 miles away from the crime scene.
Byron De la Beckwith was tried and acquitted twice in 1964 in connection with the Evers case, with all-white juries on both occasions.
After one of the trials, then-Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett stood by Beckwith’s side and shook his hand.
Klansman-turned-FBI-informant Delmar Dennis once told the Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger that the Klan had influenced the juries in the 1964 murder trials.
Reopening The Case
Following the two hung juries, the case lay dormant for twenty-five years, until the Clarion-Ledger began researching the activities of Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission, a secret organization disbanded in 1969.
Commission documents, kept sealed in the Mississippi Department of Archives from the time of the disbanding until 1989, indicated the possibility of jury tampering and official misconduct in Byron De la Beckwith’s second trial.
Popular sentiment in Mississippi opposed trying the 73-year-old Beckwith a third time. However, Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter took on the case despite the obstacles of lost evidence and limited public support. A third murder trial commenced in Jackson in late January 1994.
By all accounts, Beckwith’s views on race had not changed with age. During trial selection, he was heard to comment, “I’m proud of my enemies. They’re every color but white, every creed but Christian.”
During the trial, defense attorneys once again called for a mistrial, citing Mississippi’s extensive delay in reopening the murder case. They urged jurors to acquit the elderly man, saying that a great deal of evidence had been lost over the intervening 30 years.
DeLaughter pushed for a conviction, saying it was necessary to heal the wounds of time.
“No man is above the law,” he said. “No man, regardless of age, is above the law.”
A racially mixed jury composed of residents of Hinds County, Mississippi found Beckwith guilty of murder on February 5, 1994, thirty years after his first trial. Sentenced to life in jail, he died in January 2001 at the age of 80.