How Medgar Evers’ Widow Fought 30 Years for His Killer’s Conviction

How Medgar Evers’ Widow Fought 30 Years for His Killer’s Conviction


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When Myrlie Evers was told in 1989 that new information in her late husband’s decades-old murder case was unlikely to move the gears of justice, she did not react in anger.

Instead, the widow of slain civil rights movement hero Medgar Evers listened carefully as Mississippi prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter explained that the state couldn’t find any of the evidence from a past prosecution. Then, she calmly asked that his team “Just try."

Faced with the overwhelming odds of a case with few surviving jurors, a defiant defendant who had always maintained his innocence, and a public that had long since seemed to move on from the tragedy, others might have backed down. Instead, Myrlie Evers fought to have the murder case reopened—a battle she had waged for nearly 30 years.

Medgar Evers Faced Constant Threats

Even before her husband’s 1963 assassination, Myrlie Evers had struggled with the consequences of her husband’s attempts to overturn Jim Crow segregation. As he agitated on behalf of voting rights and against laws and attitudes that pushed black Southerners out of public schools, universities, beaches and fairgrounds, he had sustained multiple death threats and an attempt to bomb his home with a Molotov cocktail. The danger was so serious that Medgar was under FBI protection, and the Evers family had drilled their children on how to respond if shooters ever threatened him at home.

On the night of June 12, 1963, the dreaded happened. Shots rang out in front of the Evers home. As the kids crawled on the floor to a bedroom, Myrlie went to the front door. Medgar was lying there in a pool of blood, dying from a gunshot wound.

A suspect immediately emerged. A sniper rifle left on the scene of the crime was traced to Byron de La Beckwith, a rabid segregationist who belonged to the White Citizens Council and was known to hate black people. The FBI also traced the sight that the killer had used to Beckwith.

Flawed Prosecution Fails to Convict Evers' Killer

Beckwith was arrested about a week after the murder, but his prosecution was flawed from the start. During jury selection, the district attorney asked every potential juror if he believed it was a crime to “kill a n----” in Mississippi. Only seven black men were included in the jury pool, and none were called to serve.

The all-male, all-white jury heard multiple arguments that Beckwith could not have murdered Evers, including an elaborate alibi and claims that three men, not one, carried out the murder. They saw Ross Barnett, the segregationist sitting governor of Mississippi, go to the defense’s table during the course of the trial, even shaking Beckwith’s hand and clapping him on the back. And they came back with a deadlock that gave Beckwith an automatic mistrial.

A second trial, during which the Ku Klux Klan packed the gallery and burned crosses around Jackson, resulted in the same verdict. A third trial was planned, but never carried out, and the trials were eventually dismissed.

The state of Mississippi seemed uninterested in pursuing justice. But Myrlie Evers later told a New York Times reporter that in the days following her husband’s murder, she promised herself, “I'm going to make whoever did this pay.”

In the meantime, Myrlie poured her anger into the civil rights causes Medgar had championed. “More than any of the other civil rights widows,” wrote Krissah Thompson for the Washington Post, “Myrlie Evers showed America her rage.” Over the years, she ran for Congress, remarried and left Mississippi. But whenever she came back, she asked what had been done to put Beckwith behind bars and pressed officials to keep looking for new evidence.

Then, in 1989, she spoke to Jerry Mitchell, a Jackson newspaper reporter who told her he had found evidence that the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that had secretly been given authority to investigate and intimidate civil rights movement leaders, had surveilled Medgar and conducted secret background checks on jurors. When the news broke, she asked the state prosecutor to reopen the case. Despite a missing murder weapon, legal uncertainty about whether Beckwith could be tried again so many years after the crime, and a case file just three pages long, he did.

Then more evidence emerged. When Mitchell questioned the police officers who had provided Beckwith’s alibi, they named different times than they had years before. And even after prosecutors failed to find evidence of jury tampering in the original case, they located new witnesses, thanks to Myrlie’s urging. New witnesses can become difficult to locate the older a case becomes. But in the case of Medgar’s murder, the passage of time allowed some with once unknown details about his murder to feel safer coming forward than they had in the 1960s.

In 1994, Beckwith finally stood for his third trial. Still defiant, he came to court every day wearing a Confederate flag pin. This time, the jury was more racially diverse—and this time they agreed on a different verdict. When the guilty verdict was read, Myrlie Evers-Williams wept. Afterwards, reported the Los Angeles Times, she jumped for joy, then looked up to the sky, saying “Medgar, I’ve gone the last mile of the way.”


50 Years Of Remembering Medgar Evers, His Widow Reflects

Fifty years ago, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Mississippi. Host Michel Martin speaks with his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, about how she remembers him and keeps his legacy alive today.

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We start the program today with a memory. Fifty years ago today, a few minutes after midnight, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi by a white segregationist who wanted to stop Evers' work as a field organizer for the NAACP. He was just 37 years old, a war veteran, a husband, and a father of three. Evers had put his life on the line to register voters. Here he is a month before his murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEDGAR EVERS: This demonstration will continue. We will have a mass meeting tonight, and after the mass meeting, we will be demonstrating even further on tomorrow. So then, this will only give us an impetus to move ahead rather than to slow down. We intend to completely eradicate Jim Crow here in Jackson, Mississippi.

MARTIN: Medgar Evers' death was a tragedy but also a turning point in this country's long battle for equal opportunity and justice. At his side, at the end, as throughout, was his wife Myrlie. Myrlie went on to raise the children left fatherless by his death, fought to see her husband's killer brought to justice, and became a significant leader in her own right - as chair of the NAACP in the 1990s. You might also remember, she delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama's second inauguration earlier this year. Myrlie Evers-Williams and her family are in Jackson today to commemorate Medgar Evers' death and life, and she's with us now. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at such a busy time.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Oh, it's indeed my pleasure.

MARTIN: How is it for you to recall these events? It can't be easy.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: No, no, it is not. And let me say this, that the events stay with you, regardless of the year or the time, they are there. You work through them, you suppress them, you put them away, and now here I am. Surprisingly so, to me, reliving all of these things and it's good because people remember. Young people who did not know about that period of time are very curious about it. And I certainly have worked very hard over these years to be sure that Medgar was remembered.

I really am surprised that I'm beginning to feel a little emotional about it because I have fought emotion and replaced emotion with doing things that were positive to help people remember Medgar and others whose names we don't use that often or recall that often. So it's kind of strange, it really is.

MARTIN: We talked after President Obama was first elected. You mentioned that you still had with you the poll tax receipt.

MARTIN: . that your husband had had in his pocket, with his blood on it.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: It's true. I do.

MARTIN: And I wonder, did you ever feel kind of caught between wanting to remember so that others will remember and wanting to forget yourself?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Never wanting to forget, but working hard to be sure that others remembered. Medgar gave so freely of himself and, for many years, his name was very seldom, if ever, mentioned with other civil rights leaders. I found that an unbearable pain because he was one of the first and gave so freely and who wanted nothing for himself in all of this. It was just that his beliefs were that deep. And I was determined to be sure that in some way, positive way or ways, that Medgar would be remembered.

And after 50 years of working and securing justice in his murder, building my own careers and taking care of my children and whatnot, life was just been busy, and in the background was this knowing thing of you've got to do more and you've got to do more to be sure that this man is remembered. So here we are, at this day and time, and I feel relieved that people in America and around the world, for that matter, know who Medgar Evers is.

MARTIN: One reason, though, you had to keep working was that - that it took a very long time for his killer to be brought to justice.

MARTIN: I mean the man who shot him.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Thirty years.

MARTIN: Byron De La Beckwith, he was an avowed white supremacist. He was tried but the jury deadlocked, and then 30 years later, after a new investigation, he was finally found guilty. I wonder, did you believe that day would come?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: I knew it would. It had to. I had promised Medgar, if just a couple of nights or so before he was killed, that if anything happened to him and I survived, I would be sure that justice would be served. And I don't make many promises, nor do I break them, and it became a passion of mine. So how do you juggle the needs of answering the past and moving through the future while you live as normal a life as you possibly can while rearing three children? It's not easy, but I have been blessed to have friends, you know, my children, supporters here and there. So I don't know, a psychiatrist might say I have a split personality. But whatever, it has worked to serve my needs and I believe the needs of America as a whole.

MARTIN: What has it taken for you to emerge whole from this? I mean, there are a lot of people who suffer a loss who never get over it. And I know that you said that, you know, it's always with you but one of the things that I think people admire about you is that you did go on to have a full life. I mean, you ran for Congress yourself, you had a career, you finished your education, you raised your children, as we said, you remarried.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: That was healthy.

MARTIN: Yeah, what can people draw from your own experience, you think, of how you learned to recover from this?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, it's basically accepting the fact that life does go on. And it is left up to each individual as to what kind of life you have. I'm not one to give up easily, and I know Medgar would have wanted me to pursue those things that I did, and he often told me that I was stronger than I thought I was. So, you know, there you are, you don't - I don't believe in sitting in a corner and being, oh woe is me. You get up, you get up and you find challenges and you move forward. And that's what I've done with my life and I'm very blessed to have been able to do that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Myrlie Evers-Williams. She's the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He was killed outside their home in Mississippi, 50 years ago today. Voting rights were such a significant part of Mr. Evers' life and work, and also your life and work. There is a major case before the Supreme Court relating to voting rights, and one of their main questions in this case is whether certain areas of the country still should have federal oversight. I don't know whether you have an opinion about this, but if you do, I would be interested to know.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: The answer is yes. I will be up front about that. There are, yes, certain places in this country. But why are we being specific about certain ones when we find prejudice and racism at the polls anywhere you look in this country? Other states will deny that, but if you look at the subtlety of it now, the subtlety of ways of keeping people from registering and voting, it's no longer how many bubbles in the bar of soap or how many peas in the jar, it's more subtle in the sense that you have to have certain IDs now, that you have to have certain clearances, to even keeping people waiting for hours in the line to vote. And that is not the way it should be in America.

MARTIN: Do you remember this? He was speaking at an NAACP gathering about a week before he died and he was quoted as saying, I love my children and I love my wife and I would die, and die gladly, if that would make a better life for them. It's kind of chilling to hear those words. I don't remember if he ever said that to you, you know, directly, but in the years since then.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. Many times.

MARTIN: Did you feel that his sacrifice was worth it? Really, all of your sacrifice, 'cause all of you had to live with the loss.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, I do. I do feel that. I did not initially. I think I did, but I could not accept it at the time that he was alive. But looking back, Medgar felt so strongly about justice and equality and the role that he could play. And he knew that his life was on the line and he still continued to do that. I did not always support it, but I came to support his needs, his wishes. I'm just pleased and proud to have known him, to have been his wife and the mother of his children. So I asked for strength, I asked for blessings, and I have been fortunate. I received both.

MARTIN: You mentioned earlier, there have been a number of tributes to mark this important moment. I'll just play a short clip of President Clinton speaking at Arlington National Cemetery last week, where your husband is buried.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Medgar Evers just came home from the war and said, hey, I want to vote. I want to have a say in the affairs of my community. I want all people to be treated like they're the same, and it turns out that we are.

MARTIN: Of all of the tributes that have been planned and are being delivered in memory of your husband, is there any one in particular that's particularly meaningful to you?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes, and it's a very private one. Our younger son, Van, was at Arlington Cemetery and there was a private gathering at Medgar's gravesite, and he became a little emotional, but he looked at me and he embraced me and he said, mom, that was my dad. That moved me more than anything else, but to have President Clinton, all of these other people, Mississippi, from around the world - all of these wonderful things that are happening are just so rewarding to me. To fly into Jackson, Mississippi, to the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport is so important. To have young people discuss him and determine what they can do based on Medgar's life, it - the beat goes on, as they say. And I'm so pleased to have been a part in seeing that happen.

MARTIN: Myrlie Evers-Williams is the former chair of the NAACP. She is, as we know, the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He was killed 50 years today, and we found her in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is attending many commemorative events. Myrlie Evers-Williams, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your own work.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: It has been my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, warmer weather often means that women like to take off a layer or two to beat the heat, but too many then read that as an invitation to critique.

ROCHELLE KEYHAN: He kept saying things like, don't worry, I don't bite, why aren't you going to talk to me? I can bite if you want to.

MARTIN: Our Beauty Shop ladies talk about the growing movement to stop street harassers. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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Medgar Evers’ widow christens Navy ship

Back in the early 1990s, when he was governor of Mississippi, Ray Mabus made Myrlie Evers a promise that she doubted he would ever keep:

“I will do something at some point to see to it that Medgar Evers is remembered for the man he was,” Mabus told the widow of the World War II veteran and slain civil-rights leader.

Myrlie Evers said this week: “I thought he was just saying something to be nice. But he made good on his word.”

The promise was fulfilled Saturday when Myrlie Evers smashed a bottle of champagne against the hull of the 689-foot USNS Medgar Evers, christening a $500 million dry cargo ship at General Dynamics NASSCO on San Diego Bay. Mabus named the ship not long after he became secretary of the Navy.

Standing before a crowd that included civil-rights leaders such as Julian Bond and Vernon Jordan, Myrlie Evers said, “I will not have to go to bed ever again wondering whether anyone will remember who Medgar Evers is.”

Scores of Navy ships have been christened at NASSCO, the last major shipbuilder on the West Coast. But Saturday’s ceremony was an unusual and unflinching reminder of the segregation and other racial discrimination that gripped the Deep South.

Medgar Evers was a Mississippi native who joined the Army in 1943 and fought in France and Germany before making it back safely three years later.

“He was fortunate enough to come home, but he found that he was still a second-class citizen,” said his widow, now 78. “His father was still being called ‘boy.’ His mother was still being called ‘girl.’ Medgar could not register to vote. He tried, but he and his brother, Charles, were blocked.

“His family was visited one night by men in white robes. His father answered the door, and one of the men said, ‘Tell those little n----- boys of yours that they will never be able to vote. I can tell you this because Medgar related these stories to me. It was not with bitterness, but with anger and the determination to change things.”

Medgar Evers earned a college education, sold insurance and began working for the NAACP, peacefully fighting prejudice through voter registration drives. He also helped organize boycotts against companies that were believed to have discriminated against blacks. And he tried, unsuccessfully, to become the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

Evers became famous over time, especially for helping to uncover details about the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed after he allegedly flirted with a white woman.

Racial tensions continued to escalate, affecting Medgar and Myrlie Evers personally.

In May 1963, their home was firebombed. About a month later, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was shot in his driveway and died an hour later. White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted, more than 30 years later, of the murder. Two earlier trials, involving all-white juries, deadlocked.

Navy Secretary Mabus, a fellow Mississippi native, spoke extensively about Evers on Saturday, calling him a man who “fought in a principled and nonviolent way. . In a real sense, he set us all free. His life was a mighty blow against the chains of racism that bound us all for too, too long.”

Myrlie Evers took the podium moments later and talked about the lesser-known people who helped her husband advance civil rights. She stepped to the microphone about the time rain resumed falling at NASSCO.

“I can envision the rain drops being the tears from all of those people in this country who have fought so long and so hard to get where we are today. But those were not tears of sorrow. They were tears of joy. So . let the rain come down. It’s all right.”


A World War II soldier

At the end of his sophomore year of high school and several months before his eighteenth birthday, Evers volunteered and was inducted into the United States Army in 1942. The decision to volunteer was prompted by a desire to see the world and to follow Charles, who had enlisted a year earlier. During his tour of duty in World War II, Evers was assigned to and served with a segregated port battalion, first in Great Britain and later in France. Though typical at the time, racial segregation in the military only served to anger Evers. By the end of the war, Evers was among a generation of black veterans committed to answering W.E.B. Dubois’s clarion call of nearly three decades earlier: “to return [home] fighting” for change.

Upon returning home, the initial “fight” for Evers was to register to vote. For Evers voting was an affirmation of citizenship. Accordingly, in the summer of 1946, along with his brother, Charles, and several other black veterans, Evers registered to vote at the Decatur city hall. But on election day, the veterans were prevented by angry whites from casting their ballots. The experience only deepened Evers’s conviction that the status quo in Mississippi had to change.


Medgar Evers

Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an American civil rights activist in Mississippi, the state's field secretary for the NAACP, and a World War II veteran who had served in the United States Army. He worked to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi, end the segregation of public facilities, and expand opportunities for African Americans, which included the enforcement of voting rights.

A college graduate, Evers became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Following the 1954 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Evers challenged the segregation of the state-supported public University of Mississippi, applying to law school there. He also worked for voting rights, economic opportunity, access to public facilities, and other changes in the segregated society. Evers was awarded the 1963 NAACP Spingarn Medal.

Evers was assassinated in 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, [2] a member of the White Citizens' Council in Jackson, Mississippi. This group was formed in 1954 in Mississippi to resist the integration of schools and civil rights activism. As a veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. [3] His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests his life and these events inspired numerous works of art, music, and film. All-white juries failed to reach verdicts in the first two trials of Beckwith in the 1960s. He was convicted in 1994 in a new state trial based on new evidence.

Medgar's widow, Myrlie Evers, became a noted activist in her own right, serving as national chair of the NAACP. His brother Charles Evers was the first African American to be elected as mayor of a city in Mississippi in the post-Reconstruction era he won the office in 1969 in Fayette.


Evers' Widow: "You Did Not Die In Vain"

For a younger generation of Americans, the inauguration of President Barack Obama sends a powerful message.

"It puts a face on everything you've been taught and everything you hear," says Courtney Cockrell. "There's no better role model than the president of the United States."

Courtney and Corrie Cockrell, 27-year-old twins from Jackson, Miss., were inspired by what they saw on Nov. 4, 2008.

"It was just amazing, really, to just see the country come together and to see people put things that don't matter aside, and look at him for the man that he is and the leader that he his," Courtney says.

Corrie and Courtney know the historic vote that put the Obama family in the White House could never have happened without the help from their family.

"Uncle Medgar -- I just can imagine him, you know, just being so proud of us to see the country come together," Courtney says. Adds Corrie Cockrell, "I think he would say, 'job well done.'"

Trending News

More than 40 years ago, their great uncle, Medgar Evers, was denied admission to the University of Mississippi Law School -- the same school from which his twin nieces graduated -- simply because he was black.

"He knew that there were things that needed to be done and he was willing to do them no matter what," Corrie says.

Long before Barack Obama rallied a nation for change, Evers was willing to risk his life for it. In the segregated South during the 1950s and 60s, his wife Myrlie knew her husband's dreams for equality were dangerous.

"Medgar was unusual in the sense that he was so committed to justice and equality and willing to pay the price -- knowing full well that at that particular time and in Mississippi, he was putting his life on the line," she says.

It was ugly chapter in our nation's history, a time when African-Americans were lynched, beaten and killed because of the color of their skin.

Medgar Evers struggled to abolish laws that oppressed blacks. As a leader in the NAACP, he knew the real power was in the vote.

"We are not just interested in voting so that conditions can be improved for Negroes. We want conditions improved for everybody," Evers said on a 1962 broadcast of CBS Reports.

Myrlie Evers says getting people registered to vote was a big part of her husband's life.

"A major, major part of his effort, but the power was in the vote. The power was elusive," she says, "because of the fear people had."

In the 1962 interview Evers said, "I've had a number of threatening phone calls. People calling me saying they were going to kill me. Saying they were going to blow up my home up and saying that I only had a few hours to live."

"It almost sounded as if he knew," says CBS News correspondent Harold Dow. Myrlie says "he did."

On June 12, 1963, a young Myrlie Evers and her three children were inside the family home in Jackson, Miss.

The children knew the sound of Daddy's car and she recalls the kids saying, "Here comes Daddy. Here comes Daddy."

"&hellipand it pulled in the driveway behind my car and wham."

Medgar Evers was shot in cold blood by a white supremacist in the driveway of his home. He was just 37 years old. It would take another 30 years to bring his killer to justice.

Myrlie says she remembers "almost everything" about the day her husband was assassinated. "How he kissed the children and how he kissed me. How he walked out of the door, got in the car, came back in then embraced us all again."

At that moment, Myrlie went from wife to widow and her life changed forever. She took up her husband's cause for change and became the first woman to lead the NAACP.

Last year, Myrlie joined another cause -- Barack Obama's run for the White House. She was a powerful reminder to the candidate that he is standing on the shoulders of all those who fought and died for civil rights.

"I said to him, 'I want you know that I keep you and your family in my prayers on a daily basis, as I do with my own children.' He looked me in the eye, without a smile, dead serious and he said, 'please keep me in your prayers.'"

Medgar Evers' daughter, Reena, son, Van, and three grandchildren feel a connection to the new First Family.

"They do look very similar as to how they carry themselves, even to the point of how they sit and cross their legs," Reena says.

Adds Myrlie, "I saw a photograph of Obama playing basketball. This man's feet were off of the floor, he was reaching for that ball, had it in the grasp of his hands and I said, 'You know what? I see him as a leader, and that's the world that's in his hands . When the news commentators came on and said it's over, he's won this race, I buried my head in my hands and tears began to fall. I couldn't stop them and I said, 'Medgar do you see? Do you see what has happened?'"

On the day before the inauguration, Myrlie Evers went to Arlington National Cemetery to give her husband the news. "We made it. Obama made it," she tells him.

And in the nation's capitol on the historic day, the Evers family is witness to history.

"All persons should have an opportunity to register and vote and to do the things that the Constitution guarantees them," Evers said in 1962.

"I understand now," she tells her husband, "that you did not die in vain."


The Widow Gets Her Verdict

ON LABOR DAY MORNING, Myrlie Evers, 61, widow of Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights legend, stood on a platform in Jackson, Miss., and cut ribbons dedicating the Medgar Wiley Evers Post Office Building. A church choir sang "He's So Wonderful." Mississippi politicians, black and white, made speeches. Two blocks away, Byron De La Beckwith, 73, who was convicted in February of the Evers murder in 1963, sat at the Hinds County Detention Center. "I chuckled at the thought that the jail was so close," Myrlie Evers said after the festivities. She is a handsome woman, tall, with a spark in her chestnut eyes. "I hope he heard everything," she went on. "I want him to understand how much he's motivated me all this time."

The journey that brought Myrlie Evers to this sweet moment of justice took her 31 years to complete. In June 1963, her husband, the field secretary of the Mississippi N.A.A.C.P., was gunned down in front of the family home in Jackson. The killing was among the first of that decade's political assassinations and a turning point in the civil rights movement. President John Kennedy dedicated his ground-breaking civil rights legislation to Evers's memory. Within days of the funeral, Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, was charged for the first time with the murder. He was tried twice in 1964 both times, all-white juries deadlocked, creating mistrials. Though strong evidence linked Beckwith to the killing, and though he himself dropped hints of involvement, the Hinds County prosecutor eventually dismissed the murder charges.

With the killer free, Myrlie Evers led two parallel lives. She moved to California, where she raised her children -- Darrell, Reena and James (now 41, 40 and 34), took on a career in fund-raising and public relations, and married Walter Williams, a labor activist. Today she lives in Oregon and travels the lecture circuit. All the while she kept constant tabs on events back home, monitoring Beckwith's whereabouts, always seeking a way to reopen the case.

The break came in 1989, when The Jackson Clarion-Ledger began investigating the activities of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a secret agency that operated in the 1950's and 1960's. Commission documents pointed to possible jury tampering and official involvement in Beckwith's second trial. With this fresh information in hand, Myrlie Evers pressured Mississippi officials to move for a new trial.

On Feb. 5, almost 30 years to the hour of the first trial, a racially mixed Hinds County jury found Beckwith guilty of murder. "I didn't realize how deeply implanted this need to clear everything up was," Evers explained later. "When it was over, every pore was wide open and the demons left. I was reborn when that jury said, 'Guilty!' " Q: Of all the civil rights widows, you seem to be the only one who has carved out an independent life.

A: I'm not sure that's really accurate. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, went back to college and got her doctorate. She's an administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. Let's just say that I have not depended on Medgar's name. I'm the only one who's remarried. None of the other widows have ventured off into areas such as politics, corporate America -- where you bear yourself to all kinds of criticism. Q: You are a vice chairman of the board of the embattled N.A.A.C.P. -- an organization now in crisis. Benjamin Chavis has been purged as executive director amid charges of financial mismanagement and sexual harassment. The chairman, Dr. William Gibson, has been accused of charging up nearly a half-million dollars in expenses. Do you worry for the association's future?

A: It will survive. But what will it be? People are drifting away. We need strong leadership, which I hope will include more women at the helm. We need leaders who guard the monies of the association very carefully -- and who do not abuse the privileges that come with leadership. Q: Are you thinking of seeking Chavis's old post?

A: I'm not the least bit interested in becoming executive director. That's a 24-hour job with constant travel. However, I have been encouraged by some leaders to run for chairman of the board. My husband, Walter Williams, is not well and his health is a big determining factor in whatever I do. I have the financial background, the overall commitment, a 40-year association with the N.A.A.C.P. Q: How is it that an organization that has given the world heroines like Rosa Parks and Daisy Bates has so few women in top positions?

A: I believe that many of the men think of the women as nice decorations and are perhaps not even aware that there's a problem. The president is a woman, but we don't need tokens. Women are mostly on the very soft committees, where no major decisions are made that directly impact the operation of the organization.

The women of the association are more than ready to assert themselves and to call the hand of those males who have not guarded the association as carefully as they should have. Q: On the subject of Byron De La Beckwith -- why was it so important to go after him when so much time had passed?

A: Because Beckwith committed a crime and he still boasted about it. I saw it as a moral issue. A society should not allow murderers to go free. People long for justice, you know.

In the end, the trial had a good effect on Mississippi. A poll before the trial by The Clarion-Ledger showed the public very much against trying Beckwith again. Another poll after the verdict read just the opposite. Mississippi has always been known as the poorest state and one filled with racism. I have watched Mississippi try to make progress, try to get accepted. Getting this verdict helped. Q: What do you recall of the atmosphere in Jackson in the spring of 1963?

A: The tension. For years, ever since 1954, when my husband accepted the position of N.A.A.C.P. field secretary of the state of Mississippi, we knew his life was on the line. In the spring of 1963, Medgar was leading economic boycotts of downtown businesses discriminating against our people. In the Jackson newspapers, there were editorials calling for "a flow of blood" in the streets, pinpointing Medgar as someone something should be "done" about.

Over the 11 years of our marriage, we had often spoken about the possibility of assassination. But in the spring of 1963 we spoke of it constantly. A dear friend, Dr. Felix Dunn of Gulfport, Miss., told my husband of a plan to wipe him out. Dr. Dunn had seen a death list with the names of 10 civil rights leaders on it. Medgar was No. 1. It was a white person [ who knew people in the Ku Klux Klan ] who had shown Dr. Dunn this list.

In the days before Medgar was killed, there was almost a morbid presence about him. It got to the point where he said, "Take care of my children." The last morning he was at home, he kissed us all and went out to the car and came back again. That night, Medgar went to an N.A.A.C.P. meeting. The children and I stayed home to watch President John Kennedy give a civil rights speech. We heard the motor of Medgar's car. The car pulled in the driveway. Then, a rifle blast. I ran to the door. Medgar was still alive. Every drop of blood was coming out of him.

Afterwards, I remember thinking, "I'm going to make whoever did this pay." Q: When did you first hear the name Byron De La Beckwith?

A: A few days after Medgar's death. The rifle had been left in the bushes and the dew had frozen the thumb print. I knew he was the assassin from the first photographs printed of him. There was a wound on his eye from the rifle's telescopic sight. Q: Were you surprised by the speed of the first two trials?

A: Yes. At first, I thought nothing was going to be done. I had lived in Mississippi all my life and could not recall a single conviction of a white for killing an African-American. I recall a meeting with Bill Waller, the prosecutor in the 1964 trial, and I asked him how he planned to address me in court. He said: "You were born here. You know how things are." I told him, "Mr Waller, if you address me as anything other than 'Mrs. Evers,' I will protest in court because respect is one of the things my husband died for." In court, he called me . . . nothing. Q: What did you feel when you first came face to face with Beckwith?

A: Anger and hatred. This was when I went to court to testify during the first trial. Beckwith had this smirk on his face. He was very pleased with the publicity. You could tell from the way he looked at me that I was a nonentity to him. But I stared at him and our eyes locked.

While I was testifying, the Governor, Ross Barnett, walked in -- I'll never forget this -- and he paused and looked at me, turned and went to Beckwith, shook his hand, slapped him on the shoulder and sat down next to him. He was sending a clear signal to the jurors that this man was to be acquitted. Q: Those first few months of widowhood must have been terrible.

A: I was 30. I had dropped out of college to marry Medgar when I was 18 and now I had children, ages 3, 8 and 9, looking to me. Medgar had made $6,100 a year and had left me with thousands of dollars of debt. The N.A.A.C.P. said, "If you'll make appearances on our behalf, we'll continue to pay his salary." I did it. Every weekend I was away making speeches. My eldest son began to fear that I, too, would be killed. He stopped talking and he could not hold down his food. And I was suicidal. The only reason I struggled to stay alive was the promise Iɽ made to Medgar to take care of the children.

It became difficult for the family to have any semblance of recovery as long as we lived in that house. The blood remained on the concrete. The refrigerator still had the dent from the bullet that had passed through Medgar's body. There was nowhere in Mississippi I wanted to live. Medgar and I had always talked about how, if we ever left the state, weɽ go to California.

I felt very guilty about leaving. We moved to Claremont, a college town 30 miles from Los Angeles. I enrolled in Pomona College -- so that I could get a degree. Only when we arrived there did I realize that Claremont was all white. On the whole, the new environment proved good for the children, though I would have liked a more balanced racial mix. Sundays, I took them to nice restaurants, something weɽ been barred from back home. There was satisfaction in finishing my education and having a career. After my graduation, the Claremont Colleges hired me as development director. I ran for Congress in 1970 as a Democrat and won 36 percent of the vote in a traditionally Republican district. In the campaign I did not run as "Mrs. Medgar Evers," but rather as Myrlie Evers. I was beginning to develop my own identity. In the next few years, I would go on to work as director of community affairs for Atlantic Richfield, as a columnist for Ladies' Home Journal. Q: How did you meet your second husband, Walter Williams?

A: At the Claremont Colleges. He phoned and asked to show me a likeness heɽ made of Medgar. He was a longshoreman, active in his union, and a civil rights fighter from way back. We began having dinner and became friends. It's been a wonderful marriage and I'm in awe of the way Walter handles Medgar's memory. In many ways, the marriage has been "Walter, Myrlie and Medgar." For any man to understand that is rare. Q: You managed to keep on the case even from California.

A: I had to return to Mississippi several times annually to see my elderly parents. Whenever I was there, I inquired, "Have you heard anything about this man?" Beckwith ran for lieutenant governor in Mississippi. He spent some time in prison for attempting to bomb a Jewish leader in Louisiana. After some years, people said: "Myrlie, you're living in the past. Let it go." But the fact that no one had been found guilty made it hard to let go. And Beckwith couldn't keep his mouth shut. I thought, "Keep talking -- one of these days you're going to give yourself away." Q: How did the break in the case finally come?

A: President George Bush had asked my brother-in-law, Charles Evers, to do something nice for Jonas Savimbi [ the Angolan guerrilla leader ] . So Charlie invited him to Mississippi and presented him with the Medgar Evers Award for Achievement to Humanity, or something like that. I hit the ceiling. A reporter with The Clarion-Ledger, Jerry Mitchell, phoned me about that and mentioned heɽ been working on an expose of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. It would later turn out that he had some records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and that he thought that there was enough evidence there to seek a new trial because the jury in the second trial had been tampered with.

It was something to get started with. I called the Hinds County District Attorney's office and asked for an appointment. The first meeting was nasty. "It can't be done. This is too old a case to try to resurrect. We don't have the files anymore." That was what the District Attorney, Ed Peters, told us.

Sitting on a sofa, the assistant district attorney, Bobby DeLaughter, held up the case file, which had two or three pieces of paper in it, and sighed, "Mrs. Evers, this is all we have." Well, that's a start, I told him.

And we had Federal, state, city and county officials adding their clout to the demand for a new trial. The Jackson City Council passed a resolution asking for the case to be reopened. Q: A key piece of evidence, the murder weapon, had been lost. It would turn up in the private collection of a Mississippi judge. How did that happen?

A: It's really weird, isn't it? I'm not sure that the real story has been told yet. But that wasn't the only missing evidence. The photos from the first trial had disappeared. One day, the District Attorney was called anonymously and told to expect them. We needed to find the witnesses after 27 years -- we had a wonderful, aggressive investigator named Crisco, who found people where and when they were still alive. Bobby DeLaughter called me and said, "We have to drop the case without a transcript and we don't have one." I answered: "When do you need it? I have a certified carbon I've been saving for my children."

I was a woman driven. I lived and breathed the case. The hardest part came when the Mississippi Supreme Court was deciding whether or not they would allow a new trial. It took them forever to make a decision. So I went to the press and complained. There was such foot-dragging, but eventually we got that trial. Q: How was the third trial different from the first two?

A: The trial was actually held in the same Hinds County courtroom where the other two had been. But in the first two trials, we had only white males on the jury. This time, we had males, females, Caucasians and African-Americans. This time, I was always addressed as "Mrs. Evers." New witnesses came forward, too. A former Klansman named Delmar Dennis testified that at a Klan meeting Beckwith had said that, "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children." There was also a woman who said she was in a restaurant where she heard Beckwith bragging about killing Medgar. Sheɽ been too frightened to speak up before.

The night before the verdict was difficult, because everyone had expected a very short deliberation. By 6 or 7 of the first evening, with no verdict, I thought, "Oh, we're in trouble." Then came the verdict, and I thought, "Yessss . . . Medgar!" Q: Rumor has it that Fred Zollo, producer of "Mississippi Burning" -- a movie that many civil rights leaders found offensive -- is preparing a feature film on your campaign to prosecute Beckwith.

A: As I understand it, the movie is a fictional story and will not be solely based on Medgar and myself. He has bought the rights to a book about Medgar's case. It doesn't bother me that Bobby DeLaughter will be the main character, because he deserves so much praise. I am apprehensive, however, about how Medgar and I will be portrayed. Will Medgar come across as someone afraid of his shadow? I certainly will be watching developments carefully. And with legal counsel. Q: Your second husband is now quite ill. Does that bring back some of the pain of losing Medgar?

A: This is different. With Walter, there's time for us to talk, to find comfort, to work through the fear and the pain of losing each other. Medgar's death was violent, and there's something about violence that tears out your innards. Q: In Mississippi there's a debate on whether all the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission should be opened to public inspection. Where do you weigh in?

A: I feel it's important to have those files open so that we can see the evil that prejudice and racism breeds. There was information included in the files that helped secure a third trial in Medgar's case and perhaps there will be similar information in opening up some of the other Mississippi murder cases. Q: Do you ever wonder what Medgar would be doing if he had lived?

A: Heɽ be an elected official of the state of Mississippi. He used to say, "The day will come when enough of our people are voting and we will have elected officials and I plan to be one." I'm so proud that Mississippi has the largest number of African-American elected officials in the country. That's a tribute to Medgar and all the others. Q: And how do you think he would like the person you've become?

A: After the verdict, my two sons asked me, "Ma, do you think Daddy could have dealt with you now?" I said, "Itɽ be pretty tough on the old guy, but I think heɽ be proud." And he is proud, if there is such a thing as reaching beyond.


For a True Story, Dipping Into the Classics

''This story is true,'' reads an opening title in ''Ghosts of Mississippi,'' Rob Reiner's self-important new drama. But true as it is, Mr. Reiner's film feels like the Hollywood version. In describing how Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin who killed the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was brought to justice 30 years after his crime, Mr. Reiner falls back on pat dialogue, courtroom grandstanding and the excessive nobility of a white crusader helping black victims.

This film runs so true to the Hollywood view of Southern white racism that its hero's wife is the fading blond belle who won't stay with her man when the going gets tough. It also includes the ''To Kill a Mockingbird'' moment when its hero educates his offspring (and his audience) about the harsh realities of Southern life. ''You know, sweetie, maybe ɽixie' isn't the right song,'' he tells his little daughter, who is used to hearing it as a lullaby. ''I'm not sure all ghosts like ɽixie.' ''

The film, written by Lewis Colick, also has a great love of rhetorical questions. (''What kind of man shoots another man in the back in front of his family?'' ''Is it ever too late to do the right thing?'') But its most jaw-dropping line comes from Mr. Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers (Whoopi Goldberg). ''You remind me of Medgar,'' she tells Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), the assistant district attorney who works doggedly at reopening the Evers murder case.

Ms. Evers was a consultant on this film, whose cast includes other members of the Evers family, and she may believe exactly that. But the movie's stolid hero isn't seen rivaling her husband's accomplishments. As played by Mr. Baldwin with more dutifulness than excitement, Bobby is a hunter who's less interesting than his prey. Meanwhile, Ms. Goldberg is frozen into genteel rectitude by the burden of playing this admirable woman. James Woods's performance as the hateful old reprobate Beckwith is the film's chief sign of life.

''Ghosts of Mississippi'' opens with a rousing, majestic montage depicting landmarks of the civil rights struggle in America. None of what follows matches the impact of this title sequence, although Mr. Reiner does his best to churn up righteous indignation. The film's high-voltage visual style finds characters often on the march as they deliver their lines. And it builds inexorably toward courtroom theatrics (as in Mr. Reiner's '⟾w Good Men''). But the story's dramatic potential is limited by its suspense-free outcome. While there may be viewers who don't initially know how Mr. Beckwith's trial ended, there will be none who can't guess.

''Ghosts of Mississippi'' includes brief, sharp supporting performances from William H. Macy (as an investigator helping Bobby) and Bill Cobbs (as Mr. Evers's brother), which stand out from its otherwise measured acting. (The lawyers pay a lot of attention to buttoning and unbuttoning their jackets during courtroom scenes.) Along with Mr. Woods's wily malevolence, these vivid minor characters help rescue ''Ghosts of Mississippi'' from the memory of other recent films.

In addition to recalling 'ɺ Time to Kill,'' with its own white hero fighting racism on similar terrain, this film allows a case to be made on behalf of a reprehensible character '�use if the system doesn't work for Byron De La Beckwith, it doesn't work for anyone.'' ''The People vs. Larry Flynt'' says the same thing with real conviction and says it infinitely better.

''Ghosts of Mississippi'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes violence, profanity and racial epithets.

Directed by Rob Reiner written by Lewis Colick director of photography, John Seale edited by Robert Leighton music by Marc Shaiman production designer, Lilly Kilvert produced by Mr. Reiner, Frederick Zollo, Nicholas Paleologos and Andrew Scheinman released by Castle Rock Entertainment. Running time: 120 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Alec Baldwin (Bobby DeLaughter) Whoopi Goldberg (Myrlie Evers), James Woods (Byron De La Beckwith), William H. Macy (Charlie Crisco) and Bill Cobbs (Charlie Evers).


Evers' widow lives with pain, triumph

BEND, Ore. - Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of NAACP martyr Medgar Evers, calls February her "TNT month" - tears and thanks.

The anniversaries of her eldest son's and second husband's deaths and the conviction of her first husband's killer all fall this month. It was also on a snow-dusted New York day in February 1995 that she was elected chairman of the NAACP board and began erasing its $3.2 million debt and repairing its tarnished reputation.

Ten years later, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathers at the New York Hilton today for its 97th annual meeting, Evers-Williams will be there.

And the nation's oldest civil rights group is once again at a crossroads, battling an IRS audit that its current chairman, Julian Bond, denounces as politically motivated and searching for a new president after the abrupt resignation in November of Kweisi Mfume.

Evers plans to endorse Bond in the election for chairman and to speak out strongly - the only way she knows how - about NAACP programs, finances and the eventual successor to Mfume. She considers the NAACP family, like her own - at times dynamic, at times dysfunctional - and she wants to ensure its continuing relevance.

It's why she recently took her daily companion - an aging, jovial black Lab named Sugar - to a kennel and embarked on her pilgrimage of connecting flights from Oregon's desert country to New York. She walks these days with a bum knee, bum foot and bad back. She carries with her medicine prescribed for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and she prays that no one will shake her hand firmly. Arthritis has flared up.

Hers is a story of such triumph and tragedy that you'd think she could rest. She can't, even though she turns 72 next month, nearly twice the age of Evers when he was killed by a bullet in the back.

"This is the last phase of my life," she said before leaving her home here, a large split-level redwood house shared with Sugar. "I may live another 30 years, but between now and when my parting time comes, I know I have something more to offer. But what is it that I can do without killing myself?"

Her contribution to the NAACP has already been immense.

"Although other people take credit for it, it is she that paid off more than half of our indebtedness," said Bond, who succeeded her when she retired in 1998. "Not only has she spent her life involved with the NAACP, but she has given two husbands to the struggle for justice."

Medgar Evers' killer, Mississippi white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of the 1963 shooting 11 years ago on Feb. 5. Her second husband, Walter Edward Williams, a gentle, 6-foot-4 California longshoreman and civil rights activist, died of prostate cancer 10 years ago on Feb. 22. Her eldest son, 47-year-old Darrell Kenyatta Evers - "My precious Darrell," she calls him - died of colon cancer four years ago on Feb. 18, a wrenching inversion of the natural order that can still startle her awake.

"I thought losing two wonderful men would be the worst I would go through," Evers-Williams said of her husbands. "It wasn't."

Listening to her son's labored wheezing as he lay dying in a California hospital was the worst. She had held her second husband as he died, so she knew the haunting sound that marks the end. "The rattle," she called it, grimly.

She said she steeled herself, sat at the foot of her son's bed and began to sing gospels, soft like a lullaby.

"Precious Lord take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. . "

A month earlier, Darrell, who was 9 when he watched his father die clutching a pile of NAACP "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts, had left his mother a recorded phone message.

"I just want to thank you for all you've done for me in these last months, weeks, days," he said, trying to sound upbeat even as his health waned terribly. "It really means a lot to me, Mom. I love you."

Evers-Williams saved the message to a CD and stored a copy in a safe deposit box. Listening to it replayed, she cried.

"This wound is raw, inflamed," she said. "I don't think I will ever get over this one."

It's no wonder she wishes she could altogether skip February. On a recent, cold morning here, she sat momentarily still in her Toyota Land Cruiser, parked outside her office. Her fingers rubbed at her temples, and she clenched her eyes shut. In the CD player were the Commodores ("Brick House") and Wild Cherry ("Play that Funky Music"), turned suddenly off. She had intended to use the music as a pick-me-up, like a strong cup of coffee. It hadn't worked.

"Let me explain," she said finally, smiling weakly, "I woke up at 4 o'clock this morning. I couldn't go back to sleep."

An accumulation of tasks and appointments and emotion pressed her. Later, her phone would ring incessantly with book publishers, magazine editors, authors, her lecture agent and friends. There were civil-rights lectures to plan, money to raise for her fledgling nonprofit race-relations foundation - the Medgar Evers Institute - and schedules to juggle to accommodate the NAACP meeting.

Also, a new book about Medgar Evers by historian Manning Marable is due out in June, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Documentary History of His Words.

To help Marable, she has been sifting through Evers' possessions - letters, papers, speeches and NAACP reports, and it has scratched old wounds. "The scabs have come off," she said.

She pulled a school-bus yellow envelope from her satchel. Police in Jackson, Miss., gave it to her after Beckwith shot Evers with a deer rifle and his lifeless body was lifted onto their daughter's mattress and rushed away in a station wagon. The envelope and its contents are remarkably intact: Evers' NAACP membership card, poll tax receipt and Mississippi driver's license, bonded paper tinged in blood so dry and dark it looks like mud.

Marable, the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, said he has seen Evers-Williams torn by his book's research.

"There has been a great cost in all of this, in having to be strong so many decades, in sacrificing your husband, in losing another husband, in having to bear witness to maintain the truth and dignity of a martyr," he said. "There is just such a great cost in terms of human strength and endurance."

One morning recently, after playing the piano with arthritic hands, she found herself slumped on the floor of her den, sobbing. "I was reflecting on the past," she said.

On her deceased paternal grandmother, who raised her and taught her to play the piano on her three children, who were left fatherless at young ages on Williams, whom she had held close before he died and said, "You're the love of my life."

Her research for Marable resurrected it all. You can't dig up part of the past without pulling on it all, she explained. And with it came repressed anger.

"This is an interesting anger," she said. "It's not an anger directed toward any person. It's not an anger at life. It's an anger at harsh events, situations."

She's angry that segregation and poverty were forced upon her Mississippi childhood. She's angry that Evers felt compelled to serve as the NAACP's first Mississippi field secretary ("The bravest man in America," Ebony magazine called him one year before his murder). And she's angry that youth today don't always appreciate the sacrifices of the past.

"What was it that set Martin Luther King on fire?" she asked a crowded assembly in January at Virginia's James Madison University. "We need to know - to know - the history. . I have a fear that as we embrace all that we have, we will forget what it took to get here."

If she was angry, though, it didn't show. Her booming voice resonated to the rafters, but it sounded more nurturing than fuming.

Don't be fooled, she said later. Anger simmers, then boils. Several years ago she was on an episode of Oprah where victims of hate crimes recounted their transformations from anger to forgiveness. During a commercial break, she recalled, Oprah Winfrey leaned close and asked her if she, too, had made the transformation.

"No," Evers-Williams snapped. "I'm mad as hell."

A friend recently gave her Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames. A paragraph on page 44 grabbed her: "If you are still bound and haunted by the past, if you are still afraid of the future, if you are carried away by your projects, your fear, your anxiety and your anger, you are not a free person."

Evers-Williams read the paragraph aloud, slowly, then repeated it.

"I want to be a free person," she said.

After her son's death, a friend asked, "Do you still believe in God?"

Evers-Williams is a Baptist-turned-Congregationalist-turned-African Methodist. Just discussing the awe of the Almighty can make her eyes water.

"Yes, I still believe - with all my heart I believe," she recalled telling the friend.

"I don't see how you can," the friend said.

"My faith is unshakeable," she replied. "It matters not what comes my way."

Her tidy office here is decorated in the cause that drives her and the past that binds her: Framed NAACP awards, newspaper clippings of her victorious NAACP election, black history books that highlight her first husband, civil rights artifacts and a large bronze bust of Medgar Evers. There's little evidence of her independent successes.

A year after Evers' murder, she moved to liberal, white Claremont, Calif., where she raised Darrell, Reena and Van by herself. It was relatively safe there, even if hers was the neighborhood's only black family. Her son, Van, is married today to a woman who grew up four doors away, and daughter, Reena, the first black cheerleader at Claremont High School, works for United Airlines.

Evers-Williams earned a sociology degree, worked as a college administrator and executive for the Atlantic Richfield Co. she became the first black woman commissioner for the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. As the NAACP chairman, she was known to be inclusive but decisive. Bond said he still follows the first advice she gave him:

"Listen to the board, but then don't be afraid to do what you think is right," she told him.

After giving up the chairmanship of the NAACP, she considered moving back to California to be with her children, but she couldn't bear to leave Bend (population 65,000), a rustic town 175 miles southeast of Portland. She's attached to the memories she and Williams shared after moving here in 1989.

The house sits on three serene desert acres. A broad deck overlooks the snow-capped Cascade Mountains. Deer wander onto the property to eat berries from the juniper trees. The desert, the neighbors, the sleepy pace of life are comforting.

She no longer sleeps with a Lugar pistol, as she did in Mississippi. She doesn't flinch when she checks the mail, as she did in Claremont after discovering a dud pipe bomb in her mailbox. She feels safe here, she said.

Yet the past never fully relaxes.

During her keynote speech at James Madison on Martin Luther King Day, she asked for the stage lights to be lowered so she could see the faces in the audience.

"Lower them a little more, please. And more. And more. . A little more, please."

Decades ago, civil rights leaders needed to keep an eye on their audiences, she explained, "just in case they had to move with great expedience."

She spoke for a couple of minutes, then asked again for the stage lights to be lowered. "Old habits die a very hard death," she said.

And painful memories never fully fade.

Several weeks later, back in Oregon, her demeanor was much softer than her commanding public posture. She spoke wistfully of her immediate goals. Her tone was matter-of-fact, not self-pitying:

"I want to be able to wake up with the joy of laughter again. I want to be able to sing. I want to be able to play the piano again. I want to be able to dance."


New Beckwith Trial to Track Racist History : Mississippi: White supremacist is accused of killing civil rights leader Medgar Evers more than 30 years ago. Two earlier trials ended in hung juries.

When Medgar Evers was cut down more than 30 years ago, his assassin was aiming at more than the fiery NAACP leader--he meant to kill black dreams of racial justice in Mississippi.

He succeeded in his first aim he was less successful in his second. And once again Mississippi is seeking to come to grips with both, putting white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith on trial for Evers’ murder.

“I think the fact that the state has taken the initiative makes a great statement about the progress Mississippi has made as a society,” said Charles Sallis, a Millsaps College professor whose 1974 history book once was banned from Mississippi’s schools for dealing too honestly with the state’s racist past.

Sallis added, however: “A lot still has to be done.”

The trial, which began last week and is expected to last several weeks, will be the third for Beckwith, a onetime fertilizer salesman whose fingerprint authorities say was on the sight of the hunting rifle that killed Evers on June 12, 1963. Two all-white juries in 1964 failed to reach verdicts.

Beckwith, now 73, has maintained that he was in his hometown of Greenwood when Evers was shot in the back in the driveway of his Jackson home.

“That’s 93 miles away. It would have had to have been a mighty powerful rifle for me to have done it,” said Beckwith, who contends the rifle was stolen from him.

Jury selection will take place in Panola County, a predominantly white county in northern Mississippi, where attorneys hope publicity about the case has not tainted potential jurors. Once a jury is picked, the case will be moved back to Jackson for testimony.

That testimony will take place in the same courtroom as the previous two trials held in 1964--a year marked by the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. It was the “Freedom Summer,” when hundreds of volunteers from the North and South set up programs designed to promote black voter registration.

Evers, the state NAACP field secretary, had championed voting rights and helped organize economic boycotts of businesses that discriminated.

“It’s imperative, not just important, that we go on with this trial,” said his widow, Myrlie Evers. “Justice has not been done in this case.”

Mrs. Evers, who campaigned for years to have the case reopened, said a conviction would be important not only for Mississippi and the nation but “for me and my family. That night is like a movie that is on replay every day. I have not forgotten.”

Mrs. Evers had allowed her three children to remain awake to greet their father that night. They recognized the sound of his car pulling into the driveway about 12:30 a.m., and then heard the single shot.

A grand jury re-indicted Beckwith in December, 1990, after The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson reported that secret files from the now-defunct state Sovereignty Commission showed the old segregation watchdog agency had been asked to investigate jurors for Beckwith’s second trial.

Prosecutors said they found no evidence of jury tampering, but steady pressure from Mrs. Evers and black leaders kept the investigation alive.

The case was taken to the grand jury after prosecutors said they located witnesses with new information.

One of those witnesses was the Rev. Robert L. T. Smith of Jackson, who died in October. Smith said in 1990 that he saw Beckwith at a meeting at a black Baptist church in Jackson the night Evers was slain--a meeting that Evers also attended. That claim contradicts two alibi witnesses who testified at Beckwith’s previous trials.

Court documents show prosecutors have subpoenaed at least 19 witnesses, including nine people who testified in the 1964 trials. Among the new witnesses are Peggy Morgan, who lawyers claim Beckwith told in 1966 that he had killed Evers, and Delmar Dennis, a former Ku Klux Klansman who also claims Beckwith bragged about the slaying.

Beckwith still preaches white supremacy and directs those interested in his past to read his biography, “Glory in Conflict.”

Both Charlie Sallis and Myrlie Evers view the trial as symbolic for Mississippi.

“Mississippi has a chance to finally put this behind them,” Mrs. Evers said. “They can say to the country and to the world that Mississippi has changed or they can say it’s the same old boys’ network that has been its past.”

Sallis said that although it would be difficult for prosecutors to reconstruct what happened three decades ago, “what we do know for a fact was that there was bias and prejudice working in the state at that time. It was a closed society.”

Medgar Evers’ Slaying: A Chronology

Events after the 1963 slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the subsequent cases against Byron De La Beckwith:

* June 12, 1963: Evers shot and killed in his driveway in Jackson.

* June 21, 1963: Beckwith arrested on civil rights charge in connection with the slaying.

* July 2, 1963: Grand jury indicts Beckwith on murder charge.

* Feb. 7, 1964: Mistrial in Beckwith’s first trial declared, with the all-white jury deadlocked 6-6.

* April 17, 1964: Another mistrial declared, with the all-white jury deadlocked 8-4 to acquit.

* March 10, 1969: Murder charge against Beckwith dismissed.

* Oct. 1, 1989: Newspaper reports that secret files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission show it aided Beckwith’s defense in his second trial by screening potential jurors.

* --Oct. 31, 1989: Hinds County district attorney announces he will let a grand jury decide if jury tampering took place.

* Dec. 14, 1990: Grand jury again indicts Beckwith.

* Oct. 3, 1991: Beckwith arrives in Jackson after nine-month extradition fight.

* Oct. 8, 1991: Beckwith pleads not guilty.

* Aug. 24, 1992: Mississippi Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments on whether Beckwith should face third trial.


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