Civil Rights Author Speaks Out on FBI Investigation of Civil Rights Martyrs Murders; Medgar Evers Murder Investigation Reopens?

Civil rights author, Susan Klopfer (Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, 2005 ) said she is not “at all surprised” the FBI is taking a second look at the murder of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Killed in the summer of 1963 in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home, “Evers was a beloved man whose murder struck hard on those who worked with him, and on so many others outside of Mississippi who knew of his bravery,” Klopfer said.

The FBI announced Monday it is examining claims by Byron De La Beckwith Jr. of a conspiracy to kill Evers nearly a half century ago. Beckwith’s father was found guilty of the murder in 1994 and later died in prison.

“We’re pursuing every avenue that comes up” in connection with killings from the civil rights era, said Tye Breedlove, spokesman for the FBI in Jackson. “We’re looking under every stone,” Breedlove told Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion Ledger.

Beckwith, in an interview with Mitchell, stated he “might need to get ready for a visit. It won’t be the first time they visited me, and it won’t be the last.”

In 2006, Justice Department officials announced an initiative to look into killings from the civil rights era in which suspects had gone unpunished. Since then, the FBI has examined more than 100 killings, some of which remain under investigation, including the murder of Emmett Till.

The June 12, 1963, assassination of Evers has not been reinvestigated because of the 1994 conviction of Byron De La Beckwith Sr. The former Marine, who received a Purple Heart in World War II, was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

Klopfer said that when researching this murder in 2004, she spoke with several people living in Mississippi, including a prison guard (now deceased) and a waitress “with interesting stories to tell” about Evers’s murder. “It was always whispered around the Delta that others were involved, and that Beckwith may not have even been in Jackson when this assassination took place.” Beckwith, at the time, resided in the small Delta town of Greenwood. 

In a recent six-hour interview with The Clarion-Ledger, Beckwith Jr. insisted to Mitchell that his father is innocent and shared purported details about the killing that never emerged in his father’s first two trials in 1964 in which the white Citizens’ Council raised money to pay for his three attorneys.

“I sincerely hope the FBI will take this new information seriously and that they have more success than with the re-investigation of the murder of Emmett Till, who was also killed in Mississippi. Most of us who know the Till story still wonder why Carolyn Bryant was never called before the grand jury. It’s most likely she was on the scene when Emmett was taken from his uncle’s home.

“So why won’t the investigators demand she finally tell what she knows before she dies?”

Bryant, who now resides in Greenwood, was married at the time of Till’s murder to one of the two men found innocent of killing the 14-year-old Chicago school boy in 1955. Both men later confessed to the brutal murder that sparked the modern civil rights movement.

Klopfer researched and wrote two Mississippi civil rights books while living on the grounds of Parchman Penitentiary with her husband, Fred, who at the time worked as the prison’s chief psychologist. She wrote a third book on the topic in 2010.

“Our living at Parchman put me only a few miles away from where young Till was murdered in August of 1955. Some of the people who were living at the time of his and Evers’s later murder seemed eager to tell me what they knew, and several had interesting information to share – stories that were quite different from what had been reported in the news at the time,” Klopfer said.

“Many more civil rights era murders need to be put under the FBI microscope, and this includes the murder of Cleve McDowell, a Mississippi lawyer who was killed in 1997. McDowell spent much of his professional life investigating these and other murders. He was mentored by Evers when he first went to college in Jackson and worked for Dr. Martin Luther King after he completed law school. McDowell was raised in the same small town of Drew, near the site of Till’s murder, and was the same age as Till. All of McDowell’s research papers were destroyed or taken away when a fire broke out in his vacated office, only six months after McDowell was murdered under suspicious circumstances.

“The brutal murders of so many civil rights heroes, including not only Till, Evers and McDowell, but also Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett — two elderly civil rights advocates from Charleston — have not been given the attention they deserve,” Klopfer said.

“Maybe this new information coming from Beckwith’s son will make a difference. I hope so. These important civil rights stories must be told. These heroes must not be forgotten.”