On this day June 12, 1963
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers is murdered in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi by Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith.
On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after just returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go,” Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from an Enfield 1917.303 rifle that ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television in support of civil rights.
On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers’ murder. During the course of his first trial in 1964, De La Beckwith was visited by former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker.
All-white juries twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith’s guilt.
The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar. Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963 song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” about Evers and his assassin. The song’s lyrics included: “Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king.” Nina Simone took up the topic in her song “Mississippi Goddam”. Phil Ochs wrote the songs “Too Many Martyrs” and “Another Country” in response to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the haunting “Ballad of Medgar Evers.” Eudora Welty’s short story “Where is the Voice Coming From,” in which the speaker is the imagined assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker. Even Rex Stout used the event as a plot device in his civil rights themed mystery A Right to Die.
In 1965, Jackson C. Frank included the lyrics “But there aren’t words to bring back Evers” in his tribute to the Civil Rights Movement, “Don’t Look Back,” found on his only, self-titled, album. Malvina Reynolds mentioned “the shot in Evers’ back” in her song “It Isn’t Nice”. More recently, rapper Immortal Technique asks if a diamond is “worth the blood of Malcolm and Medgar Evers?” in the song “Crossing the Boundary”. The RZA sang on “I Can’t Go to Sleep” by Wu-Tang Clan, “Medgar took one to the skull for intergrating college.”
In 1994, 30 years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, Beckwith was again brought to trial based on new evidence, and Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as the attorney. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly good state of preservation as a result of embalming. Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for the three decades following the killing. Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January 2001.