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Authors: Maryanne Vollers

The Ghosts of Mississippi

Ghosts of Mississippi
The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South
Maryanne Vollers

 

Copyright © Maryanne Vollers 2013

 

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or part in any form. For information, address International Creative Management, 730 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10019.

 

ebook ISBN: 9780786754991

 

Distributed by Argo Navis Author Services

 

1

 

The arc of the moral universe is long,

But it bends toward justice.

— Theodore Parker, abolitionist

2

 

For Bill Campbell

All the roads lead home to you

1
Ghosts of the Old South

Byron De La Beckwith was not an ordinary prisoner, and he was not treated like one.

When he arrived at the Hinds County Detention Center in the fall of 1991, he was seventy years old and suffering from blocked arteries and bad hearing. Beckwith was confined to an eight-by-ten-foot private cell, with its own shower, in the medical block of the jail. His meals were brought to him in his cell. He had a cot, a little black-and-white TV, a bookcase, a reading light, a public-school-issue desk-chair, and boxes and boxes of paper, pens, special foods, vitamins, letters, notepads, envelopes, and assorted ultra-right-wing political literature.

Beckwith had to be kept away from the other prisoners, who were mostly black. He was such a garrulous, uninhibited racist that he was as likely to call someone a “nigger” to his face now as he was back in 1964, the last time he was in jail in Jackson, Mississippi. It was clear to those who remembered him, and many did, that the man hadn’t changed much in three decades. Neither had his predicament. Beckwith was charged with killing a civil rights leader named Medgar Evers, of shooting him in the back in his driveway one hot June night in 1963 and leaving him to bleed to death in front of his wife and young children.

Beckwith’s rifle was found at the scene, but nobody had seen him pull the trigger. He was tried twice for the crime, and both times juries of twelve white men couldn’t decide on a verdict. After the second mistrial, Beckwith was set loose. The murder charge, however, hung over him for three decades.

Then new evidence surfaced in the dormant case, and Byron De La Beckwith was arrested again. By now the story of Beckwith and Evers was so old and famous that songs had been written about it and passed down through a generation. A legend was about to be tried for killing a legend.

As the new case against Beckwith slowly worked its way through the courts, there was a feeling that a cycle was being completed in the state’s history: a time of revelation, of epiphany, perhaps even of judgment was about to visit Mississippi.

In the years that had gone by between the first and most recent incarcerations of Byron De La Beckwith, the Deep South started calling itself the New South, and its optimistic leaders tried to shake off the past like a lingering nightmare. But history will not be ignored, not in Mississippi, where people live long with their memories and their grandparent’s memories, where outraged and querulous ghosts still haunt the future.

An eerie deja vu settled over the state. For those who were paying attention, the tenor of the times seemed more like the early sixties than the nineties.

Slender, rolled-up broadsides began appearing on people’s lawns, just like they did in the days when the Ku Klux Klan had paralyzed whole counties with fear. The little papers advised potential jurors that Byron De La Beckwith was a hero and an innocent man.

One steamy August morning, ten months after Beckwith’s arrival in the Jackson jail, a cousin named Kim McGeoy and a guest showed up to visit him. The smiling guard buzzed McGeoy into the corridor as two of Beckwith’s earlier visitors exited. A middle-aged man and woman nodded cheerfully. They both carried clear plastic garbage sacks loaded with hundreds of folded white papers and tiny booklets titled
Citizens’ Rule Book.
The visitors were not searched going out, and Kim and his guest were not searched or even run through a metal detector after they signed in.

Another electric door opened, and they walked, unescorted, into a narrow hallway. There were a dozen or so solid doors, each with a small, rectangular glass window. The door to cell 121 was open.

Byron De La Beckwith lounged on his prison cot, chatting with John Branton, an old Klan friend, and another cousin whose family owned miles of cotton land around Greenwood, Mississippi, where Beckwith was raised.

Beckwith wore a dark blue prison jumpsuit and jail slippers. His face and arms were white as pipe clay after so many months in lockup. He glanced up at Kim and smiled broadly.

“Greetings, cousin!” he chirped.

“Hello, Delay,” said Kim, calling him by the name his friends used.

The cell walls were cinder block painted a sickly yellow. There was a narrow horizontal window near the top of the back wall that admitted a thin wash of sunlight. From time to time Beckwith would leap onto his cot and strain to look out the window, maybe just for a glimpse of natural color in the world outside.

The cot took up most of the length of his cell. Next to it his small bookcase was stuffed with Bibles and other books on subjects that interested him. There was a large paperback titled
Gun Parts.

The wall by his desk was taped over with clippings, cartoons, snapshots, and fan mail. One cartoon, clipped from a newspaper editorial page, depicted the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices seated for a group photo. It showed a beaming Clarence Thomas with his hand on the thigh of a startled Sandra Day O’Connor. Beneath the image of the new African-American justice, Beckwith had penned, “Who dat?”

One of the snapshots taped to the wall showed a group of smiling white folks on a sunny day. There were maybe a dozen lined up in two rows, not unlike the Supreme Court justices, each holding a round red battle shield emblazoned with the white cross and red blood-drop emblem of the Ku Klux Klan.

The banty little prisoner was in high spirits. He was looking forward to his court appearance on Monday, at a hearing set to decide whether his right to a speedy trial had been violated. He expected to be set free any day now, either because the murder charge would be dropped or because the judge would finally allow him out on bond.

“I think they’ll let me go. It’s costing them too much money to keep me in this hospital,” Beckwith told his guests. He was holding court now, a princeling among his subjects. Every gesture was exaggerated: a hearty backslap, a doubled-over guffaw. The heart patient seemed as spry as a teenager as he bounded around the small cell, talking.

“You know we got AIDS here, right next door?” Beckwith said. “A white boy.”

Someone in the room suggested that the AIDS victim should go plant a kiss on the district attorney, and they all laughed.

“Then there’s this nigger down the hall!” Beckwith said in his loud deaf-man’s voice. As he said it, a black male nurse walked past his cell, not even glancing at the open door.

“Now Delay, you know the sheriff warned you about that kind of language around here,” said Kim, shutting the door.

Beckwith was unrepentant. He asked his visitors if they’d heard the new joke going around town. It was about the petrified forest, a small tourist attraction north of Jackson, and the recently unveiled bronze statue of Medgar Evers on Medgar Evers Boulevard, formerly Delta Drive.

“Do you know how to get to the petrified forest?” Beckwith asked archly.

Pause.

“Just head out Delta Drive and turn left at the petrified nigger!”

The laughter from his friends further energized Beckwith. He pounded his chest and bragged, “I don’t have a heart problem!”

But something was bothering Beckwith. It was the stranger who came in with Kim. She was one of the book writers who had been trading letters with him. He hadn’t invited her, but for some reason he told her she could stay and write down whatever she wanted. Now a weird current was singing in Beckwith, working at him, and he was changing in front of everyone’s eyes.

“You look like a white woman, but are you a Jew?” he asked.

Kim broke in and told him his visitor was a Catholic. But Beckwith was suspicious. If he hated any group more than blacks, it was Jews.

“A Catholic would know the Hail Mary,” he said. “You say it after me: Hail Mary . . .”

She looked at him, then realized what he wanted.

“Full of grace. The Lord is with thee . . . ,” she said.

“Blessed art thou among women . . . ,” he continued, staring hard, gesturing with his hand for her to finish.

“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God . . .”

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death . . .”

Beckwith was satisfied only for a few moments. He couldn’t relax. He started to pace, and he began to sermonize, raising his finger to the sky, and before long he was ranting about “filthy Jews.” Every time he said the word “Jew” he hooked one bony finger next to his nose and made a sniveling, sneering face. Jews were impostors, he said, and the white men of True Israel, like himself, had a mission.

“It is in Luke!” he shouted. “As I wrote to you, thus it is today: ‘But those mine enemies, who would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me!’”

He was panting now, and his three friends looked worried. He sat down on the cot to catch his breath, while his visitors changed the subject. They talked about mutual friends, and guns, and that got the old man’s attention.

Beckwith was calm now, and he launched into a long, elaborate story about going squirrel hunting with his visiting cousin from Greenwood.

“I wanted to show him you could hunt squirrel with a pistol,” said Beckwith, nodding at the dapper businessman in the nice khakis seated on his cot. “This was in the days before there were scopes for pistols. I knew my pistol could shoot because my wife was always shooting at me with it!”

He was laughing now, loose. His friends exchanged nervous looks. “This was my first wife. She was a terrible shot, always missed me!

“Anyway, we were out in the woods and I took a green walnut and put it on a stick, and shot it.” He assumed the stance of a man firing a gun, his pale blue eyes peering over the sight at the imaginary target.

“BAM!”

Beckwith stood up.

“He thought it was a lucky shot, so I did it again.”

He crouched again in the shooting posture, aiming at the back wall, his eyes narrowed in pure concentration on the imagined target, somewhere beyond the window, out in the world.

“BAM!”

2
Decatur

We were all close, but different. Medgar was more quietish. I used to see him go way down in himself, like he’s in a deep, deep studying. He’d just walk down the yard and out in the pasture where we’d keep the cow and the horse, and he’d be looking way over there somewhere.

He used to always carve his name on the trees and things: M. W. Evers. Everywhere you’d go: M. W. Evers. Mama had a wash place down by the spring where she built a shed to keep out of the rain. You’d see M. W. Evers all over it.

Now when I drive along the expressway in Chicago I see his name again: Medgar Evers School. All over the country. Medgar Evers Boulevard. Or whatever.

See, he had a dream, it was something in him, that he wanted. He’d carve his name and he’d stand back and he’d look. Even he didn’t know. It all come back to me, after it happened. Now I see his name everywhere.


Elizabeth Evers Jordan

 

Decatur didn’t have much going for it as a town, but it did have a courthouse. It was an impressive building, a Greek Revival marvel with brick walls, jaunty striped awnings over the windows, and massive Doric columns at the north and south ends. A wide expanse of stone steps led up to the formal north door, and that was where, in the summer of 1934, Theodore Bilbo delivered a speech to the white citizens of Newton County, Mississippi.

It was a Saturday night, hot as it could be, and the town was packed with men who rode in from the county to listen to the ex-governor from Poplarville. This time around, Bilbo was running for the U.S. Senate. The topic of the night was the same as always: niggers and what to do with them. Bilbo knew his audience and what they wanted to hear. It had worked for him for thirty years, and it would carry him through the rest of his career as the most racist politician in Washington.

“Nigger women!” shouted Bilbo, warming to his subject. “All they do is wash clothes and have babies. So don’t pay them money! Give them old clothes!”

Medgar and Charles Evers had slipped into town that night to hear the man speak. They were small then, eight and eleven, so they wormed their way between the legs of the men in the crowd. The brothers ended up sitting on the courthouse steps, directly beneath the fat little white man.

Charles remembers Bilbo was so short he had to stand on a pedestal just to be seen. He wore his trademark white suit and red suspenders and red tie. The boys raised their faces, and the gaslight from the courthouse must have caught them in the shadows, because Bilbo looked down and saw them.

“See those two little nigger boys sitting here,” Bilbo shrilled through his bullhorn. “If we don’t watch out, we will live to see the day when these two nigger boys will be asking to represent us in Washington!”

A murmur passed through the crowd. The boys could feel all those sets of eyes staring down at them in the hot night. They didn’t move, and Bilbo resumed talking.

Later Charles would say that the speech was downright inspirational.

For two boys growing up in rural Mississippi during the Depression, Charles Evers and his little brother, Medgar, had some powerful dreams. Late at night, with the house dark and quiet and their sisters and parents asleep, the brothers would lie in their bed on the sleeping porch and talk about their future together.

They had a plan. They would buy some land down in South America — Brazil! — and build two houses on two hills separated by a valley. The houses would look out on each other, and the brothers could walk across the valley to visit. They were going to put a big, tall fence around the property with a guard at the gate and big dogs running patrol around the grounds.

“We won’t let any white folks in,” said Medgar.

“And very few niggers,” said Charles. And the boys would laugh until Daddy Jim shouted for quiet.

The dream kept growing, expanding as the years went by. In Brazil they would have their own plantation, have their own women, their own children, and keep out the world. They would be free and live close together.

Another thing they agreed: they would never get married.

 

Medgar and Charles Evers grew up in a painted white house with a tin roof on an acre of farmland near the railroad tracks in Decatur.

Their father, James Evers, was a public worker. That meant he never sharecropped on a plantation; he was his own man. When there were jobs, he worked on the railroad. Mostly he stacked planks in the lumberyard at the sawmill. He was a lanky, powerful man, more than six feet tall. His father had owned his own land, and so did Jim Evers, and he built by hand the house where he raised his family.

Jessie, his wife, worked as a domestic for some white folks in town. She took in laundry. The Everses kept milk cows and chickens and planted crops, and while they were often short of cash, the family always had food on the table.

Jessie Evers had been divorced before she met Jim Evers. Her first husband’s name was Grimm. For all their life together that’s what Jim Evers called her, Grimm. She brought three children with her to the second marriage: Eddie, Eva, and Gene. She had four more children with Jim: James Charles, Elizabeth, Medgar, and Mary Ruth.

Jessie was a tiny woman, not five foot two, with tiny feet and hands. She was born Jessie Wright in Scott County, just west of Decatur. Her grandfather was a half-Indian slave, and according to the family legend, he was the most troublesome, uncooperative slave in east Mississippi. His name was Medgar Wright, and Jessie named her fourth son for him.

Her father was so light-skinned he could pass for white. He was, in fact, the son of a white man, which was common enough in the piney hills of Scott County.

Jessie Wright’s daddy, the story goes, once shot a white man, or maybe two, or maybe just shot at them. The reason, it’s said, is that someone called him a “half-assed mulatto,” and he pulled his gun and started shooting. That was the last he was seen, at least officially, around Scott County. He hit the road to save his life. Over the years he’d show up from time to time.

Liz Evers tells a story of how she and Eva were staying with her Aunt Dora, Jessie’s sister, down in Forest. One summer’s day a white stranger came to the door.

“Aunt Dora!” Eva shouted. “There’s a white feller calling!”

Dora took a look and laughed. “That’s no white man!” she said. “That’s your granddaddy.”

Jessie Evers was a religious woman. She helped build the Church of God in Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness church just up the street in Decatur. She read from the Bible, and she reared her children with a firm, loving hand. The children went to church all day every Sunday. Jim was a Baptist, so sometimes they went to two churches. They weren’t allowed to carry on and go to dances. Ball games and church. That was all the entertainment that was allowed.

As religious as she was, Jessie Evers had a spitfire in her too. She was a plump woman in her later years, but she moved herself like a queen. People would tease her, saying, “Mama Jessie, the way you walk, you carry your hips like each side is worth a million dollars!”

“Baby, more than that!” she would laugh.

She was an excellent cook, and her macaroni and cheese, fried corn, biscuits, and banana pudding were a minor legend in Decatur. Naturally she was very popular with visiting ministers around supper time.

Liz remembers how it irked Medgar that the preachers would eat all the best food and leave scraps for the children. One Sunday he sat at the table and watched one buttery biscuit after the next disappear into the preacher’s mouth. When there was just one left, Medgar couldn’t contain himself.

“Pass ’em!” he said, and reached across the preacher for the last biscuit. He got whipped for that.

Medgar didn’t get whipped all that much. He had a mischievous streak — he would torment his sisters and sneak food, like all boys will — but he was basically a studious, serious child.

Not like Charles. All their lives Charles and Medgar were held up against each other. Medgar was always the good boy, and Charles was the bad one. They were so close but so different, like flip sides of the same copper coin.

Charles was sneaky and tough, prickly and defensive. He wouldn’t let anybody get the better of him, and in that he was like his father. Medgar was more like his mother. Good-natured. Tender.

Charles would tease Medgar without mercy. He nicknamed him “Lope” after Brother Loper, a deacon in Mama’s church whom Medgar disliked. He pushed Medgar into the fishing hole to teach him how to swim.

Still it broke Charles’s heart to see Medgar get cold or hurt. He would do things for him, like every frosty winter night when Daddy ordered the boys to bed, Charles would climb in first to warm up the spot where Medgar would sleep. Medgar was the only one who could reach him that way. Charles protected his younger brother like he would protect the soft part of himself.

The neighborhood boys called Charles “Dermp.” That was the white man who would come into the Negro section to sell housewares and Bibles. Charles got that name because he would do anything to make a nickel: he would sell the tinfoil from cigarette packs, dig up scrap metal from old fields, sell pop bottles. Charles knew instinctively that money was freedom, money was power.

Charles and Medgar hated the white salesmen who came to the Quarter. They would walk into a Negro’s house uninvited, without a knock, and sell their goods. Colored folks couldn’t sell to the whites.

So Charles and Medgar look their small revenge, organizing little rebellions to help even the score. Things would go wrong. The furniture man’s tire would spring a leak, or the gate to the watermelon truck would swing open, spilling the melons all over the road. Medgar and Charles put bags on their heads to jump the white paperboys and scatter their newspapers. If Medgar and Charles weren’t allowed to be paperboys in their own neighborhood, neither would they. Mama had always taught them they were no better or worse than anyone else, and they believed her.

Still, the world of black and white is hazy to a young child. Black or white, all a child knows at first is his family, and only as years go on do the outlines of the outside world take shape and sharpen. The rules of race, the stilted etiquette that goes along with it, is as incomprehensible as all the other rules a child must learn: wash your hands before supper, go to bed before dark, don’t go out of the yard, stay out of puddles, always call a white man mister, always say yessir or no ma’am, never look them in the eye. Never show them what you feel.

In the rural south in the days of Jim Crow, the story was the same everywhere. It is a story told by blacks and by whites, by boys and girls who grew up together until they reached a certain age, when suddenly the shadow of race fell between them. In one summer, over a few weeks, sometimes in an afternoon, they would lose their friend and, in a way, their innocence.

It happened to the Evers boys like it happened to all the others. Medgar and Charles used to play with the Gaines children, Margaret and Bobby, the children of the family that hired Mama Jessie to clean and cook. All through childhood the Evers and Gaines children would run and tumble and nap together. And then one day Mama wouldn’t let the boys come with her to the Gaines house anymore. Margaret was getting too old for them to come around.

One of Medgar’s best friends was a white boy who lived nearby. One summer he stopped coming over. Before long he was standing in the street with his white friends, and when Medgar walked by, he called him a nigger.

Nobody had to remind the Evers brothers of how it was.

Every weekday Medgar and Charles walked to school a mile or more, along the tracks and across the muddy roads of Decatur. Sometimes a bus full of white kids going to their own school passed by, and the children screamed names at them, and the bus driver ran hard into the puddles just to watch the colored boys jump. They often got to school covered with mud.

The town of Decatur lay on the edge of the hill country, midway between Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the main road that would later become Interstate 20. It was a part of the state where most of the white folks were dirt farmers, and they outnumbered their black neighbors. The whites were a different breed here than they were in the Delta or on the Gulf Coast. Their ancestors came from Appalachia, and they spoke their words with a hard mountain twang. They were clannish and insular, fundamentalist Protestant, and, as a group, they had little tolerance for anyone different.

Decatur in the thirties was as segregated as it gets. The colored folks couldn’t even drive their cars into town on Saturday. They had to park them at the edge of the Quarter and go in on foot.

Town was the domain of whites, enemy territory. A black man knew he’d better keep his eyes down, and God help him if a white woman should brush against him on the sidewalk. That alone could get him beaten, even lynched. The best policy was to just walk in the road, get right off the sidewalk if a white was on it. Do your trading in the shops where you could, and head back to the safe part of town.

There were ways around most rules, even the biggest ones. The white men who prowled the Quarter for Negro girlfriends called the practice “backdoor integration.” It was something the white men might brag about in certain company.

But if a black man got caught with a white girl, he was as good as dead, or bound for Chicago forever, if he was lucky enough to get out of town.

Everybody knew what happened to Willie Tingle.

The full story is passing out of living memory around Decatur, and the old folks remember only what they were told as children. Everyone agrees on this: Willie Tingle was somehow involved with a white girl — whether he wrote her a letter, insulted her, or actually slept with her depends on who’s talking. He was grabbed by a mob of white men right off the streets of Decatur, dragged past the Quarter, tied to a tree outside of town, and shot.

Jim Evers knew Tingle. Medgar was in his early teens when he was lynched. The killers stripped Tingle’s body and left the clothes to rot under the tree where he died. Years later Medgar would talk about that lynching, how it disgusted him that a few men could grab Tingle and not one Negro in the town would try to stop it. For months after the killing, Medgar would visit the pasture where it happened and stare at the scraps of clothes, the bloodstains rusted brown, and remember. Charles recalls asking his father why Mister Tingle had to die.

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