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Assassin of civil rights leader dies in hospital

Jan. 26, 2001

Professor's dissertation focuses on Evers, media

BY ANGELA BECERRA

Reporter

The recent death of the man who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers was of particular interest to an assistant professor of journalism at Baylor.

Dr. John Tisdale wrote his dissertation on the press coverage of Evers and the events involving his assassination. Evers was named field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in November 1954.

Tisdale said that Evers was not known as a speaker, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., so he wasn't in the spotlight as much as other leaders.

At 12:30 a.m. on June 12, 1963, Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who died this past Sunday, shot Evers in the back with a high-powered hunting rifle.

Evers was taken to University Hospital, where he soon died.

Beckwith was charged with the murder, and was tried twice in 1963 and 1964. The all-male, all-white juries failed to come to a verdict both times. Gov. Ross Barnett of Jackson, Miss., shook hands with Beckwith in the courtroom before deliberations.

Tisdale said the racism and bias in the case was apparent. He said The Clarion Ledger, a Jackson, Miss., newspaper, ran the headline 'Californian Is Charged With Murder of Evers.' Beckwith was born in California, but had lived in Mississippi since he was only a few months old. At the time, The Clarion Ledger was owned by the Hederman family. Tisdale said that even by the standards of the 1950s, 'in comparison, their newspapers were overtly racist.'

Many years later, Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for The Clarion Ledger, uncovered new information about a state agency known as the Sovereignty Commission, who David Stout of the New York Times called 'a pro-segregation state agency' that 'helped Mr. Beckwith screen potential jurors at his earlier trials.'

In 1994, a Hinds County jury composed of eight blacks and four whites found Beckwith guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison for the assassination.

Joe Dove, a reporter for The Clarion Ledger, said when Beckwith was convicted, 'we had a new day in Mississippi.' Dove said Mitchell 'won everything but the Pulitzer Prize' for his investigation and active role in the case.

Tisdale said that research on Evers and his assassination will continue for decades, because 'lots of the information is just coming out.' The research will bring to light more of the extent of the impact Medgar Evers had on desegregation and equality, Tisdale said.

On June 7, 1963 Evers said 'freedom has never been free ... I love my children and I love my wife with all my heart. And I would die, die gladly, if that would make a better life for them.'

For a more in-depth version of this story, see TheLariat Web site at www.baylor.edu/~Lariat.