Remembering Medgar Evers

Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963)

This excerpted chapter from The Plan is presented today honoring the life and death of civil rights hero, Medgar Evers, who was killed in the early hours of June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi.

The Plan, set for publication in July, is based on the murders of two gay, black lawyers and a white supremacist, former FBI agent turned private detective. One lawyer was killed in Alabama, while the other two men were murdered in Mississippi. What secrets did they hold that got them killed? Focusing on the assassinations of Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Plan moves from Mississippi to Ecuador, as friends of these three men try to save one more life – a spouse of the murdered Montgomery lawyer..
In the following chapter, lawyer Clinton Moore of Clarksdale is the last of these three men left standing. He recalls earlier years when his friend Joe Means was still alive. They had worked together and separately, trying to solve selected cold cases from the 1950s through the 1970s. Moore narrows the list of murders they'd studied, trying to determine if either he or Means had come across potentially dangerous information in their work, asking what might have triggered the murder of his friend. Will he discover this in time to save his own life?

Chapter 19 The List

I’d been watching weather reports all Saturday morning early in 2013 while working on my obsession. There’s not much winter that comes to Mississippi; in late fall we enter our severe weather season, as the television weatherman calls it, when temperatures can sometimes drop by 20 or 30 degrees, bringing arctic winds with ice storms.
The house had cooled down, and I got up from my desk chair to find a sweater. By now, even my church office was filled with boxes, finally forcing me to send the entire mess over to my house. But this was not a bad idea. If I got tired from working, I could take a rest. If I got hungry, I could make a sandwich and then go back to work, or pick up a book to read if I needed a break. 
“Mr. Clinton. Here are your slippers. You’d better put them on now, you he’h? A storm is moving in.” In addition to her regular duties, Gladys my housekeeper, took good care of me. She could be good company, too. I like padding around in my bathrobe and slippers. I was getting older and starting to feel more aches during the winter months, but I hadn’t given up on what I was doing – no way. I appreciated this new flexibility in maintaining my search for Joe’s possible killer, at home.
After making my first pass through my entire collection of James O. Eastland files, Mississippi’s pathetic and racist senator from years back, and waiting for a possibly severe storm to pass through Clarksdale, I began browsing through random reports I’d collected on various crimes over the years, looking for anything that jumped off the page.

All of it was fascinating reading, especially from my history junkie perspective, and I found some of what I’d gathered years earlier was making more sense, with added time and subsequent events giving new perspective.
Yet, if I was going to get anywhere in reasonable time, I knew I’d need a better system for evaluating the importance of what I’d collected, so I would know where to go next. This led me to build a list of what I believed to be the most serious crimes I’d had studied thus far, and from using my knowledge of what Joe had looked into. Here was my first cut:

1.      Lynching of Emmett Till, 1955 (The Delta)
2.      Assassination of Medgar Evers, 1963 (Jackson)
3.      Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Dallas)
4.      Murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, 1964 (Philadelphia, Miss.)
5.      Possible murders/mutilation of Birdia Keglar, and Adlena Hamlett, possible murder of  James Keglar, 1965 (The Delta)
6.      Possible murder of former FBI man John D. Sullivan, 1966 (Vicksburg)
7.      Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968 (Memphis)

With the modern civil rights movement dwindling down, one could observe justice occasionally meted out when a brave prosecutor would march some stooped, white-haired defendant in shackles before the media, trying to get a conviction in one of the above or related murders.

Occasionally this worked, with an old Klansman shown heading off for prison while leaving his cronies behind. This is exactly what took place back in 1994, on the third and successful attempt to convict Byron De La Beckwith of killing my friend and mentor, Medgar Evers, the second person named on my list.
But even after De La Beckwith, whose friends called him DEELay (pronounced like de’lay), was locked up in prison – thirty-one years after Medgar’s 1963 murder – it never felt quite right to me, or to some other Delta people, who would occasionally talk to me about his conviction.
“We’ve got rumors floating around this place about Medgar’s murder, again. Still not sure they’re looking at the right guy. What do you think, Clint?” A Parchman prison guard asked me this over a cup of coffee at Walter’s grill about nine years ago, just as De La Beckwith’s third trial opened in Jackson.
“Honestly, Jim, I never believed that just one person was involved in killing Medgar. He had too many enemies. There wasn’t an eye witness, and De La Beckwith was reportedly seen in Greenwood close to the time of the murder.
“I also think the timing of Medgar’s murder speaks volumes,” I remember telling Jim, as I walked him through a quick story of how I’d come to this conclusion.
“You might not recall this, but one day before Medgar was shot, Gov. George Wallace, in an effort to block the integration of the University of Alabama, made his futile ‘stand at the schoolhouse door.’ That same evening, President Kennedy announced that the National Guard had peacefully enrolled two black students at the University of Alabama over Wallace’s racist objections.”
Kennedy’s speech had been far more than a mere recap of what occurred in Alabama. He’d asked for unity behind what he, for the first time, called a “moral issue.” This important speech came when many white Americans still saw civil rights as a regional, largely political question. And here was Kennedy, asking all Americans to “stop and examine” their conscience.
“Wasn’t this the same year as the Centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation?” Jim asked, as he sugared up his coffee. I pulled the sugar bowl over to my side of the table, and then motioned to Walter for some extra cream, before continuing on with my story.

“Yes, and until then, Kennedy had ignored this anniversary. But in his speech that night, he made up for this, and observed we will not be fully free until all of our citizens are free. I remember that he asked Americans of all backgrounds to engage in bringing about change, in a peaceful and constructive way.”
Jim was looking down, slowly stirring his coffee. “That was some speech. It had to make the President more than a few enemies,” he quietly said.
I nodded at the prison guard, remembering that Kennedy announced that night he would introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation and spur school desegregation beyond its current slow pace, making this his most historic civil rights address.
We both knew what had happened next. The following morning of June 12, in the early hours, and only several hours following the president’s speech, Medgar pulled into his driveway. He was  returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. He stepped from his car and carrying a load of NAACP T-shirts that read Jim Crow Must Go, he was struck in the back.
Jim took a drink from his coffee. “I remember reading the police reports. He was hit with a bullet fired from an Enfield 1917 rifle; it ricocheted into his home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later.”
Jim stood up and we shook hands. “Gotta get back to work. Later, Clint.” Jim slowly left the grill, his eyes cast down as he walked out the door.
Some people called people like Joe and me conspiracy nuts. That’s a big reason why we’d kept quiet about our cold case research, since it could be hazardous saying some things in public. Besides, this was a part-time obsession. We both had regular legal work required to support what we called our addiction.
“Do you think DEELay could have planned this all on his own?” I’d asked Joe after the first trial that resulted in a hung jury. The state of Mississippi twice prosecuted De La Beckwith for murder in 1964, but both trials ended with hung juries. The jurors were all male and all white.
“Nope. He didn’t have the resources to pull it off. It’s the same with Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray,” Joe would start in. Here’s something about Joe: If I didn’t find something really tasty to feed him fast, he could go on for hours non-stop on a topic like this. I knew exactly when it was time to pick up barbecue from Abe’s, a popular Clarksdale spot.
All I ever had to do was ply him with a barbecued turkey sandwich, putting it in his hand when he pulled into my driveway after a long trip from Montgomery. I knew what he loved and how to please him; this was his favorite food, and once his stomach was full he would answer all of my questions. As long as the sauce was good, and there was plenty of it.
Joe made a good point about the JFK and MLK assassinations. I had to give it to him: neither man blamed for these murders – Oswald or Ray – had the resources in order to do something like the slowing down of secret service cars or to call for auxiliary military guardsman to stand down, as had been done in Oswald’s case, or to delay the Memphis police response to the crime scene, as with Ray. Joe could go on forever with his impressive list of questionable activities that neither Ray nor Oswald could have accomplished on their own.

But I had my own questions about Medgar's murder.

I’d once heard from a deep source that it may have been an entirely different gunman, and not De La Beckwith, at all, who killed Medgar. Even the state’s key witness in the final trial, Peggy Morgan, secretly admitted to me years later she wondered about the conviction, that De La Beckwith at least hadn’t worked alone. She and her husband had driven the Greenwood fertilizer and tobacco salesman to visit an old friend locked up in Parchman when DEELay casually said he’d been the one who killed Medgar. Peggy later testified to this admission in the 1994 trial convicting De La Beckwith of murdering Evers. But even she had her doubts.
“He was a frightening man, and I think he [DEELay] might have been trying to scare us at the time he confessed in the car,” she’d told me. Later, Joe and I learned independently that De La Beckwith was surprisingly well connected; there were people in the Delta and elsewhere in the country who could easily have assisted him in pulling off the assassination, or who could have even done it themselves. Here’s how I first discovered this:
I had a friend, Andy, who worked as a jailer in Jackson. Several weeks after DEELay’s first arrest for Medgar’s murder, Andy told me that the new prisoner was frequently visited by Maj. Gen. Edwin Anderson Walker. 

“Wait a minute. You said the same famous general who was forced into resignation by President Kennedy for calling Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S Truman pink – in print – and telling his troops how to vote – right wing, ultra-conservative – is visiting Delay in jail?” I asked, astonished at the thought of this strange interaction.

“Yep. Walker’s the guy. Comes in to see DEELay on a regular basis.”
I was flabbergasted. “How do they even know each other?” I wanted to know.
“Don’t ask me, but they might have met when Walker was leading the riots at Ole Miss,” my friend suggested, “or at a Minuteman meeting.”
We both knew the Ku Klux Klan and this far right extremist group, the Minutemen, were frequently in bed together. As a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I’d kept up with the Who’s Who of hate groups across the country. The current report coming from the SPLC cited over 1,000 such organizations, including neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, border vigilantes and others.
James Meredith, a friend of mine, who’d been the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, hadn’t found it easy getting onto the hate-filled, segregated campus, at first. In fact, this act took a gun battle, and Gen. Walker had been in the thick of the disruption, actually leading protest riots.
“Can’t quite remember the number of U.S. Marshals, Army troops and the National Guard it took to get Meredith into the registration building, but didn’t several hundred rioters and bystanders get injured in the riots?” Andy asked. He knew I was a close friend of James.
“Well, two people were killed, at least according to official reports. But I’ve always heard this estimate was low,” I told him.
After Gen. Walker was booted out of the Army by the president, he took a new direction; he led Klansman and other angered white people, including furious Ole Miss students, in this famous, modern Mississippi battle of campus desegregation. Walker lost no time afterwards speaking out against JFK, and any good conspiracy buff remembers that Robert F. Kennedy, as Attorney General, committed Walker to a Mississippi state mental hospital for evaluation. Then a Mississippi Grand Jury acquitted him and Walker was released within five days.
Walker later became the reported target of an assassination attempt attributed to Lee Harvey Oswald, probably bogus. After JFK was killed, Walker publicly asserted there were two assassins – Oswald, and someone hired by Robert Kennedy, the president’s own brother.
This story gets better, as Joe liked to say: “Say Clint, I wonder how many people know that Jack Ruby, who shot and killed Oswald, in his Warren Commission testimony named General Walker as being directly involved in the Kennedy assassination?”
And this was the man, Gen. Edwin Walker, who was visiting little old fertilizer salesman DEELay in jail? When had they met? I wanted the answer to this question, and asked Andy to keep his eyes and ears open. “Let me know when Walker comes again, and see if you can pick up any of the conversation,” I requested.
“I’ll do my best, Clint,” he promised.
I’d learned something else from a later-declassified FBI document about De La Beckwith’s circle of friends: a report showed him also to be tight with Joseph A. Milteer, a racist leader in both the KKK and The National States Rights Party (NSRP) who’d been one of several people documented as publicly predicting the exact way JFK would be assassinated, a few weeks before the event occurred, "...from a tall building with a high-powered rifle." 
DEELay was definitely a person of interest – at least to Joe and me – when it came to investigating all of the assassinations, from 1963 through 1968, and not only Medgar Evers, but President Kennedy, Dr. King, and finally Robert Kennedy.
Joe firmly believed that all of these murders were linked. “We just need to find the right people to question, and we’ll eventually get answers,” Joe would say. “I’m just not sure exactly how.”

The right-wing militia assassination trail intrigued me, as I worked to find connections between KKK and other extremist groups, like the Minutemen. In my secret boxes filled with documents, memos, old photos, and notes, I had placed dozens of papers showing links that I had discovered from the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and other sources.

Especially interesting was a report I’d recently been given by a friend doing such research for the anti-defamation league national office. I knew Joe had been working in similar directions on his own.

For one last hour, as I dug through one more box before ending a full day of work, I ran into an old legal pad with my hand-writing. The notes were from an interview with a Klansman taking place back in the late 1970s. I'd almost forgotten about this; we'd actually had a civil talk that day, and the man from Greenwood gave me something new to consider about Medgar's murder. Thank God I found those notes!

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Copyright 2013, M. Susan Klopfer
Permission is granted to reprint this material. It must be presented in its entirety and include the name of the author. It must state this presented chapter is excerpted from The Plan, scheduled for publication in July of 2013.