Lawyer Up

By Christopher Zoukis

It happened like this:  In the evening hours of June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers attended a meeting of civil rights workers at a church in Jackson, Mississippi.  At the same time, his wife and children were at home, watching as President John F. Kennedy gave a televised speech on civil rights.   Image courtesy www.glogster.com

When the meeting was over, Medgar Evers drove to his house.  He parked the car in his driveway.  As Evers got out of his car, Delay was waiting across the way, hidden in a clump of honeysuckle vines.  In his hands, Delay held an Enfield 1917 rifle, .303 caliber, as cited in court records.  Delay took aim and fired.  The bullet smashed into Evers’s back, tore through his chest and exited, leaving a gaping wound.  Evers dropped like a sack of potatoes. 

Subsequent police reports outlined the following scenario:  Mortally wounded, yet still alive, Evers dragged himself toward his house.  He never made it.  His ebbing strength failed him and he stopped just short of the steps to the door, which was where his wife found him a short while later.  Rushed to the hospital, Evers died approximately one hour after being shot.

Medgar Evers was a determined man, as his final crawl toward his house indicated.  For Evers wanted to be somebody and to make a difference.  Inducted into the Army in 1943, Evers saw action in France.  Discharged in 1945, Evers went home to Decatur, Mississippi.  In a way, Evers’s life mirrored that of Byron de la Beckwith.  Both were passionate.  Both served their country in WWII.  It’s after their discharges that their stories diverged.

While Delay was selling tobacco, Evers attended Alcorn College, where he majored in business administration.  After graduating, Evers got married and moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he went to work for Magnolia Life Insurance Company.  The company was owned by T.R.M. Howard, who was the president of a civil rights group called Regional Council of Negro Leadership.  Evers joined the group and worked as an activist.

Evers made application to the University of Mississippi Law School.  Because of his skin color, Evers was rejected.  The University of Mississippi’s enrollment policy did not admit black people as students.  Evers filed a lawsuit against the school.  At almost the same time, he was appointed first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi.  In this capacity, Evers participated in a boycott of white merchants and helped to desegregate the University of Mississippi. 

As a result of his activities, Evers became well known as a black leader in the civil rights movement.  His growing prominence made him a target for the white supremacists of the KKK.  On May 28, 1963, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail into his carport.  And on June 7, 1963, someone tried to run him down with a car.  Both incidents were duly reported to the local police.  No suspects were identified. 

Five days later, on June 12, Byron de la Beckwith – aka Delay – assassinated Medgar Evers.  Eleven days later, Delay was arrested.  Witnesses had reported seeing Delay near Evers’s house on the evening of the murder.  And Delay’s car – a white Plymouth Valiant – had been observed driving in the neighborhood.  Police had found the murder weapon secreted in the honeysuckle vines and traced it to Delay.  The Enfield’s telescopic sight had Delay’s fingerprints on it.

What most people didn’t know was that the rifle was found after the police received an anonymous phone call.  The “tipster” told police where the rifle could be found.  Many surmised that Delay himself was the tipster.  He wanted to be arrested and go on trail because he was confident he would never be convicted.  All this information and speculation came out after Delay’s 1994 trial, and was based on court records. 

After his arrest, the police questioned Delay.  He told them the rifle had been stolen and he had forgotten to report it.  Three police officers sympathetic to the KKK asserted they had seen Delay in Greenwood, which was 95 miles away, at the time of the murder.  In other words, Delay now had an alibi.

Nevertheless, a grand jury decided there was enough circumstantial evidence against Delay to indict him for murder.  Delay lawyered up.  He was tried for murder at two separate trials in 1964.  Both times the jury selection process resulted in all-male, all white juries.  And the judge at both trials was Russell Moore, who was a personal friend of Delay.