Roy Exum: ‘Go Pray With Byron’ – The Chattanoogan

Posted By on February 6, 2017

My grandmother was Elizabeth McDonald and, in all the years we were growing up, Mammaw was the most Christian person and genuinely Godly woman I have ever known. One summer day in the mid-1990s, she called me out of the blue to say shed been praying for a man named Byron Beckwith and well, that the Lord had put it on her heart to urge me to go see this man and tell him about salvation.

Lordy, Mammaw, you know about him? Byron De La Beckwith is a Mississippi legend. Ive known about him forever and, when I heard he was living on Signal Mountain before the Feds grabbed him, I liked to have died! Everybody knows hes the one that killed Medgar Evers if I was to see the guy I'd only be because I wanted to whip him! Hes a vile human being. He should have been shot a long time ago!

That was a dumb thing to say the Biblical onslaught predictable -- but, my goodness, the whole world knew the man was a murderer and, whats more, far worse. My grandmother told me Jesus was about forgiveness and I told her I loved her and Jesus deeply but for both to forgive me for not getting involved. I was of the mind the Savior did want me to have anything to do with anybody filled with such hate, Eternal Life notwithstanding.

Later that same morning I saw my uncle, Lee Anderson, in the hall and he asked me when I was leaving for Mississippi. Mammaw had even called him, trying to get our familys premier Sunday School teacher to urge me to go. He, of course, laughed until he cried but I still stayed out of my grandmothers way a month or so. Whew, talk about a pact with the devil!

All of this came flooding back this weekend when History.com reminded me in my morning reading that this weekend marked the 34th anniversary of the day De La Beckwith was finally sentenced to a life in prison. Before then it had been the biggest travesty of justice in the history of the state, if not the nation.

Two earlier trials not long after the cold-blooded murder in the mid-60s -- were hung, which was what should have happened to Beckwith with a study oak tree branch in the beginning. Both trials were ludicrous, each panel made up of all white males, and during the second trial the fix was blatant; Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett himself get this! -- interrupted courtroom testimony by Mrs. Evers to actually shake Beckwiths hand in full view of the entire court! The judges reaction? His Honor wanted a handshake, too. The entire nation was absolutely outraged! Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General at the time, almost fainted.

Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers in the driveway of his home on June 12, 1963, with a snipers rifle. Byron was a World War II machine gunner with the Marines and something of a hero; he fought valiantly at Guadalcanal and was shot in the waist at Tarawa. But he was also so horribly twisted he fell in with the KKK and legend has it was truly a sadistic and brutal psychopath. The Evers murder was bland compared to other things he and his ilk actually did to horribly tarnish the states reputation to this day.

One year before Medgar was murdered, the charismatic black leader stood on the steps of the Lyceum at Ole Miss to accompany James Meredith as he became the first black to enroll there. Contrary to what you may see in the movies, the vast majority of students were happy to integrate the school, this even long before movies like The Ghosts of Mississippi and In the Heat of the Night being shown at the Oxford picture show.

After Medgar Evers was killed, it seemed integration intensified for a year or two but soon the students at Ole Miss were back to beer and girls, not necessarily in that order. In the spring of 1968 I was a noted student and my crowd wasnt bothered by the rumors in the least. That is, until my birthday April 4 when the paralyzing news came Dr. Martin Luther King had been fatally shot in Memphis, some 65 miles away.

That was the first national tragedy that really affected me personally, realizing I was so close to real evil. Within an hour that day a car with loudspeakers mounted on the roof drove slowly through the Ole Miss campus, announcing: Spring vacation starts immediately! Leave the campus now. No meals will be served on campus tonight. Please leave the university and go home now.

As a typical college kid, I later went back and studied for myself the genuine horrors of how one people with white skin could act towards another people with black skin. Not to this very day can I get my arms around that. Anyone who goes through history and seriously studies Medgar Evers unfailing quest for what was right, or what Martin Luther King was really like as a human being, cant help but be enormously moved.

My favorite example of all-time came about a month after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery. That was in December of 1955 and, in January, Dr. King was helping organize a peaceful black boycott of the city buses. A thunderous explosion ripped through the house where he and his family were guests. Dr. King rushed home to check on his wife and daughter who were not hurt -- and found a number of white journalists trapped in the house by a seething and vicious black mob who completely surrounded the house and understandably wanted revenge.

Now because the news media was inside there is a faultless account of what then took place. With the acrid stench of dynamite still in the air, Dr. King walked out on the front porch, held one hand high, and said these words:

* * *

Dont get panicky. Dont do anything panicky. Dont get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.

I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.

* * *

With that, Martin Luther King went inside and got two large baskets that had been used to deliver flowers: As he then escorted the news media through the crowd, he smiled and thanked everybody for their love. Please put any weapons in these baskets You will not have any need for them.

There was never an arrest made in the bombing but Im told Kings reaction I am moved every time I read it -- will never be forgotten in Montgomery. I am also told that right after De La Beckwith gained notoriety in the early 60s, there were some who believed he was in Montgomery four years before when that house bomb exploded. They think they saw him.

Shortly after he was arrested in 1963 and before the first trial began, one of the greatest Southern writers ever known, Eudora Welty, wrote a sensational article that was published in The New Yorker magazine. Welty was already known for her vibrant short stories about Southern characters, but this was before her 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Optimists Daughter. Trust me, Eudora was a female Faulkner.

Eudora lived in Jackson for almost her entire life and was well connected in the city and the state. Her New Yorker story fiction, mind you was written as though it was through the eyes of the man who assassinated Medgar Evers. It was so accurate it was uncanny, this based on testimony that was yet to be heard, and her instinct or inside skinny made the article the talk of the nation and, more particularly, a must read through the South.

Weltys article was entitled, Where Is The Voice Coming From? and, as she later revealed in a page-one interview: Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place. That is, I ought to have learned by now, from here, what such a man, intent on such a deed, had going on in his mind. I wrote his storymy fictionin the first person: about that character's point of view".

Oh my goodness! It was the perfect fodder to keep the murder by De La Beckwith hot for the next 30 years. But Beckwith was far from done. In 1973 the FBI got a tip that De La Beckwith planned to murder A.I. Botnick, a leader of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League in New Orleans. Botnick had said some pointed things about white Southerners and their racial hatred and there was a hit ordered.

The cops waited until they could catch De La Beckwith on the long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge you cant hide. They cornered him front and back and, he couldnt run only swim. They confiscated several loaded firearms, a map with highlighted directions to Botnick's house, and a dynamite time bomb. Soon De La Beckwith did three years in Angola Prison and survived several attempts on his life in such a cauldron.

Just before he went to do his time, Byron was said to have been ordained as a minister in the Temple Memorial Baptist Church of Knoxville, which I always figured is how he ended up on Signal Mountain. He was paroled in the early 80s but Evers wife was tenacious and soon the Clarion-Ledger did some investigative reporting.

In 1993 De La Beckwith was arrested by the FBI and the Hamilton County Sheriffs Department and extradited to Jackson for the third murder trial. This time there were four whites and eight blacks on the jury. Byron De La Beckwith was finally brought to justice, some 30 years after he often bragged about it.

I was pretty relieved to find out he was an ordained preacher. I always figured that after Mammaw called, maybe Bryon De La Beckwith had enough time to work out his own salvation. I hope he did before he died behind bars in 2001. But, I gotta tell you this, stuff like this has happened to me all my life and sometimes when I wake up in the quiet of the night, it is why I can giggle myself back to sleep.

royexum@aol.com

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Roy Exum: 'Go Pray With Byron' - The Chattanoogan

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