IN THE END, BYRON DE LA BECKWITH had simply outlived the primitive ethos that kept him out of prison most of the past 30 years of his murderous life. And, of course, he had talked too much, secure in the knowledge that had ultimately betrayed him: that in Mississippi no white man was going to do serious time for killing a black man. This month, a full three decades after De La Beckwith, sometime jailbird and full-time white supremacist, had fired from ambush the shot that killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers, he was found guilty of the crime by a mixed-race jury and sentenced, at 73, to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
For his victim’s widow, Myrlie Evers, 60, vindication may have been all the sweeter for being so long delayed. “All I want to do is say, ‘Yeah, Medgar! Yeah, Medgar! Yes! Yes!’ ” she cried outside the Hinds County courtroom in Jackson, Miss. For her, the memory of her husband’s murder had been, she said, “like a movie that is on replay every day.” Shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers pulled into his driveway in Jackson and stepped out of his car carrning an armful of “Jim Crow must go” T-shirts. Moments later, Myrlie and the three small Evers children heard a shot. “I bolted up off the bed and ran to the front door, and there was Medgar on the ground,” Myrlie recalls. “I screamed, and the children ran out and cried, ‘Daddy! Daddy! Please get up, Daddy!’ ”
Evers’s murder touched off nationwide outrage and helped galvanize support for legislation that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That same year De La Beckwith twice stood trial for the killing before all-white juries in Jackson. Both times the juries deadlocked. Ultimately, though, the murderer would presume too much on a nation’s waning tolerance for men like him. In 1990 he was indicted again after new witnesses came forward to say he had bragged to them about the murder. “Killing that nigger,” he had told a group of Ku Klux Klansmen in the hearing of one FBI informant, “didn’t cause me any more physical harm than your wife having a baby.”
Darrell Evers, 40, a Los Angeles artist who bears a startling resemblance to his father, cheered as De La Beckwith was led away after his conviction. “I wanted him to see the face of the person he shot,” Darrell said later. “All he saw was the back.” Myrlie, who eventually remarried and is now a retired commissioner of public works in Los Angeles, said she hoped the verdict would bring her family a measure of peace. “It’s been a long journey,” she said of her efforts to see justice done. “Medgar, I’ve gone the last mile.”