Jerry Summers: De La - Signal Mountain's Infamous Resident (1920-2001)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

In a wooded area between the W Road and Taft Highway on Albion Street lies the former residence of Byron De La Beckwith, convicted killer of National Association Advertisement of Colored People (NAAC) Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evans on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi.

De La was born on November 9, 1920 in Colusa, California and at the age of six moved to Greenwood where his mother died of lung cancer when he was 12.  After an unsuccessful college career, Beckwith enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1942 and was assigned to duty as a machine gunner in the Pacific in World War II.  He participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was wounded in the stomach during the battle of Tarawa.  He received a Purple Heart and was honorably discharged in 1945.

When he returned to Greenwood after the war he married his first wife, Mary Louise Williams (1946-1960) and became a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist White Citizens Council that was formed after the ruling in 1954’s decision of Brown v.

Board of Education.

The Council used a variety of economic tactics “to suppress black activism and sustain segregation” by boycotting black business, denying loans and credit to blacks, and other non-violent actions.

However, Beckwith as a white supremacist and Klansman did not believe that the violent (Klan) and non-violent (Citizen’s Council) efforts were successful enough in stopping integration of the races and on June 12, 1963 he shot Medgar Evers as he was getting out of his car at his home.  He was shot in the back by an assassin from across the street.

Although Beckwith was arrested for the crime, two all-white male juries could not reach a verdict in 1964.  The White Citizens Council had paid for his legal defense in both trials.

Beckwith moved to the residence on Signal Mountain and lived a rather obscure existence with his second wife, Thelma Neff (1981-2001) until Medgar Ever’s widow, Myrlie Evers Williams, pushed for another trial after a newspaper investigation revealed proof that a state agency committed jury tampering in the 1964 trials.

Times had changed in the 1990s and a new and ambitious prosecutor, Bobby DeLaughter, brought a third indictment before the grand jury in Jackson charging De La once again in 1990.

He was extradited back to Mississippi and, after several unsuccessful years of legal maneuvers by his appointed defense counsel, (See De La Beckwith v. State 707 So.2d 547 (Miss 1997) cert, denied 525 U.S. 880) he went to trial. This was over objections by his lawyer to dismiss the charges on grounds of denial of a speedy trial due process of law and protection from double jeopardy.  The Mississippi Supreme Court by a vote of 4-3 hence denied the motion to dismiss.

In January the third trial started and the physical evidence was the same except Beckwith had made several admissions before witnesses that he had shot Evers and stated that killing him “gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they gave birth to our children.” He was also quoted as saying, “When I go to Hades I am going to raise hell all over Hades till I get to the white section, for the next 15 years, we here in Mississippi are going to have to do a lot of shooting to protect or wives and children from a lot of bad (N word)."

A mixed jury of black and white jurors found De La guilty of first-degree murder without the possibility of parole and sentenced him to life imprisonment at Central Mississippi Correctional Center.

On January 21, 2001 at the age of 80, De La died at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi after suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments.

He was interred at Chattanooga Memorial Park, also known as White Oak Cemetery, in the community of White Oak.  Many publications have been written about the murder of Medgar Evers.  The feature film, Ghosts of Mississippi (1966), tells the story of the murder and 1994 trial.  James Woods’ performance of De La Beckwith was nominated for an Academy Award.

Bobby DeLaughter who was once being considered for a federal judgeship, was suspended from the practice of law by the Mississippi Supreme Court on allegations of bribery and judicial corruption while a state judge. 

On July 30, 2009, he pled guilty to one federal obstruction of justice charge and was sentenced to 18 months in the federal prison at McCreary, Kentucky.  Said charge was linked to the criminal investigation of tort, asbestos and tobacco litigation lawyer, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.  Scruggs would be sentenced to jail for five years and was disbarred from the practice of law.

Byron de la Beckwith
Byron de la Beckwith

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