27 Years Later, New Evidence Reopens the Medgar Evers Murder Case—and His Determined Widow's Darkest Memory
02/11/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Myrlie Evers carefully sifts through the pile of yellowed newspaper clippings she began saving as the young wife of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers some 40 years ago. The tattered headlines and faded photographs tell of his courageous battle against white supremacists that ended in 1963, when the 37-year-old Evers was cut down by a sniper's bullet outside his home in Jackson, Miss.
Myrlie, 57, has held on to these pages of her husband's life, just as she has held on to her determination that one day his murderer would be brought to justice. "Nothing can bring Medgar back; I know that in my heart," she says. "But I've always said that at some time and place, the person who murdered my husband would pay."
Now, after 27 years, she hopes that day of reckoning is finally at hand. Thanks to new evidence uncovered by a local newspaper and the district attorney's office in Jackson, Byron de la Beckwith, the white segregationist long suspected of assassinating Evers, was rearrested in December. Set free in 1964 after two trials in which all-white juries were deadlocked, Beckwith, 70, now faces a third trial—and, if convicted, possible life imprisonment.
For Myrlie, the trial would mark the close of a chapter that began in 1950, when she met Medgar Evers—son of a Baptist deacon—on her first day at Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Miss. Married the following year, the couple moved to Mound Bayou, Miss., where both had found jobs with Magnolia Mutual Insurance, one of the state's few black-owned companies. Working as a salesman, Evers traveled through rural backwaters and was enraged by the oppressed lives of black sharecroppers. Soon he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1954 moved to Jackson to become the organization's first field secretary in Mississippi. With Myrlie working at his side, Evers organized voter registration drives as well as sit-ins and boycotts in an attempt to desegregate public facilities.
Evers's high-profile role was a dangerous one in the segregated South of the '50s. By the summer of 1963, the push for voting rights was well underway, and tensions in Mississippi were mounting. At the Everses' home, where Medgarand Myrlie lived with their three children—Darrell, Reena and James—the phone rang constantly with death threats. A firebomb was tossed at the house but caused no injuries. Ten days later, shortly after midnight on June 12, an exhausted Evers was returning home just hours after President Kennedy had delivered his "moral crisis" broadcast calling for civil rights legislation. "I had watched it and allowed the children to stay up late so they could see their dad, says Myrlie. "We heard him pull up in the driveway and get out, and we heard a blast that pierced the night air." An assailant had fired a single shot into Evers's back. "I opened the door, and there was Medgar at the steps, face down in blood." says Myrlie. "The children ran out and were shouting, "Daddy, get up!' "
One year after her husband's death—which touched off nationwide demonstrations—Myrlie moved with the children to southern California. Aided by an NAACP stipend, she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology at Pomona College, later worked as a college development director and in 1976 married longshoreman and civil rights activist Walter Williams. In 1987, after working as consumer affairs director for Atlantic Richfield, she was appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley as one of five commissioners of public works, overseeing some 6,000 workers and $400 million in city construction contracts. "I built a new life for myself," says Myrlie, who is still active in the NAACP. "But I've always had the need to talk about Medgar."
And she has always had faith that justice would someday be done. After the killing, investigators found Beckwith's 1917 Enfield rifle in the bushes near the Everses' house, with his fingerprint on the scope. At his first trial in 1964, two taxi drivers testified that Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman who belonged to the segregationist White Citizens Council, had asked them a few days before the shooting where "nigra Medgar Evers" lived. The defense, however, produced two police officers who said they had seen Beckwith at a gas station two hours from Jackson shortly before the shooting. Beckwith testified that his rifle had been stolen a few days earlier. A mistrial was declared after the jury failed to reach a verdict; a second trial a few months later ended the same way.
For 25 years the case was effectively closed. Then in 1989 the Jackson Clarion-Ledger gained access to the previously sealed records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and revealed that the now-defunct segregationist state agency, which harassed civil rights groups during the '50s and '60s, had investigated potential jurors for the second Beckwith trial. Myrlie immediately asked the district attorney to reopen the case but was told that virtually all evidence from the trials was missing. Myrlie combed through her own documents and supplied a court transcript; then Beckwith's rifle turned up in the home of a former judge, now deceased, who had saved it when the case was closed. By the spring of 1990, investigators had turned up new witnesses, including a black minister who claims he saw Beckwith at the Jackson rally that Evers addressed the night of his murder and a former Ku Klux Klan member who says Beckwith told him he had killed Evers. On Dec. 17, Beckwith was arrested at his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn. The suspect, who says his indictment is the result of pressure from "a handful of Jews, white trash...Negroes and nonwhite immigrants," is in jail while appealing extradition to Mississippi but could stand trial in a few months.
For Myrlie, that will be none too soon. "People have said, 'Let it go, it's been a long time. Why bring up all the pain and anger again?' But I can't let it go," she says. "It's not finished for me, my children or four grandchildren. I walked side by side with Medgar in everything he did. This trial is going the last mile of the way."
Paula Chin, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.