When civil rights activist Medgar Evers accepted the position of Mississippi state field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), he knew his life was on the line. His wife, Myrlie, knew that too. Born on July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi, Evers served in the United States Army and was also a World War II veteran.
He is famously known for playing an instrumental role in helping overturn a segregation law at the University of Mississippi that allowed the admission of only White students. He led economic boycotts of downtown businesses discriminating against Black people and fought for equal rights for Black people. Thanks to this, he was targeted by White supremacists.
Due to constant death threats hurled at Evers and his family by these White supremacists and KKK members, Evers at a certain point in time was guarded and escorted by the FBI and police. On June 12, 1963, the civil rights legend was shot and killed in front of his home. Byron De La Beckwith, a White supremacist, was charged for the first time with the murder. He was tried twice in 1964 but was not sentenced for the gruesome murder thanks to a hanging all-white jury in the two trials.
However, in 1994, the case was reopened and he was tried based on new evidence. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment 31 years after the murder. And this was all thanks to Evers’ widow, Myrlie, who never gave up and fought so hard to get justice for her husband.
Myrlie 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.” And she did that.
After her husband’s killer Beckwith was freed following the first two trials, Myrlie, then in her 30s, moved to California with her children Darrell, Reena and James. There, she began a career in fund-raising and public relations, before getting married to a labor activist known as Walter Williams. But anytime she went back to Mississippi where her husband had been killed, she found ways to reopen the case while asking about the whereabouts of Beckwith, The New York Times reported.
“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,” Myrlie told The New York Times.
In 1989, she spoke to Jerry Mitchell, a newspaper reporter who told her he had found certain documents belonging to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency that secretly operated in the 1950s and 60s investigating and intimidating civil rights leaders, as stated by History. The documents showed possible jury tampering and official involvement in Beckwith’s second trial.
With this, Myrlie persuaded prosecutors to reopen the case. In spite of a missing murder weapon, a case file just being three pages long, and the legal uncertainty about whether Beckwith could be tried again after so many years, the case was reopened. Prosecutors located new witnesses. One man said Beckwith told a meeting of KKK members: “Killing that nigger didn’t cause me any more discomfort than our wives have when they have a baby.”
Mitchell, the newspaper reporter, also questioned the police officers who had provided Beckwith’s alibi, but they named different times than they had years before, History reported. In 1994, Beckwith stood for his third trial, coming to court every day wearing a Confederate flag pin. And 31 years after the assassination of Evers, Beckwith was found guilty in February 1994 and sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
Myrlie had come face to face with Beckwith during the first trial in 1964, recalling that “he had this smirk on his face.”
“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,” Myrlie said of the first trial.
Things were different in the 1994 trial, including the fact that the jury was more racially diverse. Myrlie wept when the guilty verdict was read before later jumping for joy. “I didn’t realize how deeply implanted this need to clear everything up was,” Myrlie later said. “When it was over, every pore was wide open and the demons left. I was reborn when that jury said, ‘Guilty!’”