Today marks the 49th Anniversary of the Assassination of Medgar Evers in the driveway outside of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evers was an African American civil rights activist involved in helping to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi. Evers was a volunteer for the US Army and an active participant in the Normandy invasion. When he returned home from overseas he completed his secondary education and was elected as the field secretary for the NAACP. He was instrumental in educating poor African Americans on the value of voting and the importance of the civil rights movement. He was also the primary reason that witnesses came forward in the Emmitt Till murder case, which was crucial in shedding light on the true nature of the struggle that African Americans were facing in the South.
On June 12, 1963, only hours after a speech given by President John F. Kennedy on civil rights, Medgar Evers pulled into his driveway after having a meeting with some lawyers from the NAACP. Evers was shot in the back of the head by a bullet fired from a rifle. He collapsed in his driveway and was pronounced dead at an area hospital 50 minutes later. Many of the nation’s leaders spoke out about what a terrible tragedy this was to the civil rights movement and to the future of the country. Medgar Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The man convicted of killing Evers was Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Two trials were held and both of them were comprised of solely white jurors. They were not able to make a decision about De La Beckwith’s guilt. The main piece of evidence that was presented was the Enfield rifle that killed Evers with De La Beckwith’s fingerprints on the scope. To the Prosecution’s dismay, the defense offered testimony from two police officers who swore under oath that they had seen De La Beckwith at a gas station two hours away from Jackson, shortly before the shooting. With an alibi provided by these officers and the testimony of De La Beckwith stating that his rifle had been stolen before it was used in the shooting, a mistrial occurred after the jury could not reach a verdict.
For 25 years the case was closed and De La Beckwith was a free man, until new evidence was discovered. In 1989, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger acquired access to previously sealed records that indicated how dysfunctional the trial was due to certain affiliations of the appointed jurors. Medgar Ever’s wife, Myrlie asked the district attorney to re-open the case, but her request was denied due to lack of surviving evidence. Myrlie unwilling to give up found a court transcript from the original trial in her personal collection. In addition, the murder weapon was discovered in the home of the former judge that presided over the case. In the spring of 1990, investigators found two new witnesses, including a black minister who testified that he saw De La Beckwith at the Jackson rally that Evers spoke at that night and a former Ku Klux Klan member who said that De La Beckwith confessed to him that he in fact did kill Evers. In February 1994, a racially mixed jury of De La Beckwith’s peers found him guilty of murder. De La Beckwith, 73 years old was sentence to life in prison.