When Myrlie Evers was told in 1989 that new information in the case of the murder of her late husband, several decades old, would probably not move the law, she did not react with anger.
Instead, the widow of the hero of the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers, listened carefully to Mississippi attorney Bobby DeLaughter, who said the state had found no evidence of a previous lawsuit. Then she calmly asked her team “Just try it.”
Faced with the overwhelming probability of a case with few surviving jurors, a provocative defendant who had always maintained his innocence and an audience that had long seemed to come out of the tragedy, others could have backed down. Instead, Myrlie Evers fought to have the murder case reopened – a battle she had waged for almost 30 years.
Medgar Evers faces constant threats
Even before her husband was assassinated in 1963, Myrlie Evers had struggled with the consequences of her husband’s attempts to reverse Jim Crow’s segregation. While acting in the name of the right to vote and against the laws and attitudes that pushed black southerners out of public schools, universities, beaches and fairgrounds, he had faced multiple death threats and an attempted to bombard his house with a Molotov cocktail. The danger was so serious that Medgar was under FBI protection, and the Evers family had explained to his children how to react if gunmen threatened him at home one day.
On the night of June 12, 1963, the dreaded happened. Shots were heard outside the house in Evers. As the children crawled on the floor to a bedroom, Myrlie walked to the front door. Medgar lay there in a pool of blood, dying from a gunshot wound.
A suspect immediately emerged. A sniper rifle left at the crime scene was traced to Byron of La Beckwith, a rabid segregator who belonged to the White Citizens Council and was known to hate black people. The FBI also traced the sight that the killer had used with Beckwith.
Faulty prosecution fails to convict murderer of Evers
Beckwith was arrested about a week after the murder, but his prosecution was flawed from the start. When selecting the jury, the prosecutor asked each potential juror if he thought it was a “kill a —-” crime in Mississippi. Only seven black men were included in the jury and none were called to serve.
The jury, entirely male and entirely white, heard several arguments that Beckwith could not have murdered Evers, including an elaborate alibi, and claims that three men, not one, committed the murder. They saw Ross Barnett, the segregationist governor of Mississippi, come to the defense table during the trial, even shaking Beckwith’s hand and cheering him on the back. And they came back with a dead end which gave Beckwith an automatic trial.
A second trial, during which the Ku Klux Klan wrapped the gallery and burned crosses around Jackson, resulted in the same verdict. A third trial was scheduled, but never took place, and the trials were ultimately dismissed.
The state of Mississippi did not seem interested in pursuing justice. But Myrlie Evers later told a New york times journalist that in the days following the murder of her husband, she promised herself: “I will charge the one who made this salary”.
In the meantime, Myrlie has poured out her anger on the civil rights cases defended by Medgar. “More than any other widow of civil rights,” wrote Krissah Thompson for Washington Post“Myrlie Evers has shown America her rage.” Over the years, she ran for Congress, remarried, and left Mississippi. But each time she returned, she asked what had been done to put Beckwith behind bars and urged the officials to continue looking for new evidence.
Then, in 1989, she spoke to Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Jackson newspaper, who told him that he had found evidence that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that had been secretly authorized to investigate and intimidate leaders of the civil rights movement, had monitored Medgar and checked the secret background of the jurors. When the news broke, she asked the public prosecutor to reopen the file. Despite a missing murder weapon, legal uncertainty as to whether Beckwith could be tried again so many years after the crime, and a three-page record only, he did.
Then more evidence emerged. When Mitchell questioned the police who had provided Beckwith’s alibi, they named different times from what they had years ago. And even after prosecutors failed to find evidence of jury tampering in the original case, they located new witnesses, thanks to pressure from Myrlie. New witnesses may become difficult to locate as the file ages. But in the case of Medgar’s murder, the passage of time has allowed some with previously unknown details of his murder to feel more secure than they did in the 1960s.
In 1994 Beckwith finally appeared for his third trial. Always provocative, he came to court every day with a Confederate flag pin. This time the jury was more racially diverse – and this time they agreed on a different verdict. When the conviction was read, Myrlie Evers-Williams cried. Subsequently, reported the Los Angeles Times, she jumped for joy, then looked up at the sky saying, “Medgar, I have walked the last kilometer.”