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Byron de la Beckwith Correspondence, Photographs, and Other Materials

 Collection
Identifier: MS-3439
Series I: Correspondence, 1963 July 1-1992 December 9 consists primarily of letters that Byron de la Beckwith wrote to his wife, Mary Louise (Williams) Beckwith, while he was incarcerated in Mississippi before and during his first trial for the murder of Medgar Evers. Beckwith tells his wife that he is well treated (and indeed is granted numerous privileges not accorded to other inmates) and asks her to send him various items. He also expresses his conviction that he will be acquitted and mentions the strategies that his lawyers intend to pursue. A second group of correspondence was written between Beckwith and B. Reed Massengill while Massengill was working on a biography of Beckwith during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In these letters, Beckwith's Christian Identity principles are displayed prominently. He frequently rails against blacks and Jews, both of whom he believes are attempting to destroy American (and specifically white Christian) society, and encourages Massengill to learn the truth about such groups. Beckwith also enclosed leaflets, newspapers, and other items published by such organization as the Christian Defense League, Aryan Nations, and the Ku Klux Klan for Massengill's edification. The letters end in 1992, shortly after Beckwith decided to write his biography with another author, R. W. Scott. Scott eventually produced a work entitled Glory in Conflict (1990), while Massengill wrote Portrait of A Racist (1996).

Series II: Photographs, circa 1940-1986 January houses a collection of snapshots showing Byron de la Beckwith Sr., Byron de la Beckwith Jr., and Mary Louise (Williams) Beckwith. The earliest images show Mary Louise Williams shortly before her marriage to Beckwith, and the majority of the photographs depict the family before Byron and Willie Beckwith divorced for the third time in 1965. Beckwith inscribed a few of the images from the 1970s with captions describing the scene depicted and proclaiming his love for Willie, while the latest pictures show him with his second wife, Thelma Lindsay (Neff) Beckwith.

Dates

  • circa 1940-1992 December 9

Conditions Governing Access

Collections are stored offsite, and a minimum of 24 hours is needed to retrieve these items for use. Researchers interested in consulting any of the collections are advised to contact Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

The copyright interests in this collection remain with the creator. For more information, contact the Special Collections Library.

Extent

3.5 Linear Feet

Abstract

This collection consists primarily of letters that Byron de la Beckwith wrote to his wife, Mary Louise (Williams) Beckwith, his son, Byron de la Beckwith Jr., and his brother- and sister-in-law, Jesse and Frances Williams, while he was incarcerated before and during his first trial for the murder of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Another set of correspondence was written between Beckwith and his nephew, B. Reed Massengill, while Massengill was working on a book chronicling Beckwith's life. Also included are photographs (some of which were published in Massengill's Portrait of a Racist) showing Beckwith and his family.

Biographical/Historical Note

Byron de la Beckwith was born to Byron de la and Susie Southworth (Yerger) Beckwith in Colusa, California on November 9, 1920. Although his father had been a prosperous irrigation entrepreneur, when he died on August 10, 1926 he left his young family deeply in debt. His widow liquidated his estate to fulfill his financial obligations (including one to his Oakland mistress, Ladye E. Cartmell) and moved herself and her young son to her hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi to live with her family. Although the Yergers had been impoverished by the Civil War, they managed to retain their home, a minimal number of black servants, and much of their social standing. There had been no blacks in Beckwith's native Colusa, but he quickly became accustomed to Greenwood's deeply entrenched racial hierarchy.

Always in fragile emotional and physical health, Susie (Yerger) Beckwith died in the early 1930s and her nephew, Yerger Morehead, was selected as her son's guardian. Beckwith was also deeply influenced by his eccentric uncle William Yerger (known as Uncle Will), who was a constant presence in his young life. After a lackluster career in Greenwood's public schools, Beckwith was sent to the strict Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee in 1936. The regime proved too difficult, however, and his Uncle Will arranged for him to transfer to the Columbia Military Academy in Columbia, Tennessee in 1938. Beckwith did not succeed at Columbia either, and graduated from the Greenwood public schools in 1940. He enrolled in the University of Alabama, but transferred to Mississippi State College when he was not accepted into his first choice of fraternities. His grades were, however, so low that he soon returned to Greenwood in disgrace. Beckwith took a job marketing soft drinks throughout the Delta before enlisting in Company A of the Second Division of the U. S. Marine Corps in 1942.

During the War, Beckwith's unit was deployed to the Pacific and fought at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Tarawa (which was, in numerical terms, one of the costliest battles the Marines ever waged). He was later stationed at the Naval Air Station in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked as an aviation mechanic. Here, he met Mary Louise Willie Williams, who he married on September 22, 1945. Their only son, Byron de la Beckwith Jr., was born on September 9, 1946. Beckwith's relationship with his wife was at best tempestuous. Although both took care to maintain the appearance of a typical southern family, drunken arguments were frequent and Beckwith physically and emotionally abused Willie. They were divorced and remarried twice in the early 1960s before divorcing permanently in September of 1965.

From his early years in Mississippi, Beckwith believed that his lineage entitled him to a privileged position in society. He felt himself superior not only to such groups as Jews, Catholics, and blacks but also to his white neighbors. He considered NAACP leader Medgar Evers to be a dangerous troublemaker intent upon destroying society's proper order. Just after midnight on June 12, 1963 Beckwith shot and killed Evers from the cover of a honeysuckle bush across the road from his Jackson, Mississippi home. Among southerners disoriented and frightened by the sudden and dramatic changes in the racial status quo, Beckwith was hailed as a hero. He was arrested for the crime on July 2, 1963 but the all-white jury hung and Beckwith was released. His second trial began on April 6, 1964 but also ended without a verdict. After his second release, Beckwith returned to his work as a traveling salesman and made an unsuccessful run for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi in 1967.

Beckwith's racism became increasingly radical as he aged. He involved himself with the Ku Klux Klan beginning in the late 1960s and was ordained a minister in the Christian Identity Movement (which teaches that caucasians are the Lost Tribes of Israel, that blacks, Jews, and other mud people are the literal offspring of Satan and do not posses souls, and that God has charged the white race to rule these supposed inferiors) in 1977. Beckwith was arrested again in 1973, this time on charges of plotting to assassinate A. I. Botnick, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, by blowing up his home. He was acquitted of the federal charges brought against him but was sentenced to five years imprisonment at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola by the state courts. He began serving his sentence in 1977 and was released in 1980 due to his good behavior. His fanaticism had not abated, however, and he continued to operate in white supremacist circles. He also married retired nurse and fellow white supremacist Thelma Lindsay Neff on June 8, 1983. The couple lived in Signal Mountain, Tennessee until Beckwith was extradited to Mississippi to once again stand trial for the murder of Medgar Evers. He was finally convicted in 1994 and died while serving his prison sentence on January 21, 2001.

Arrangement

This collection consists of four boxes divided into three series:

Missing Title

  1. Series I: Correspondence, 1963 July 1-1992 December 9
  2. Series II: Photographs, circa 1940-1986 January
  3. Series III: Oversized Materials, 1986 March 18-1992 December 9, undated

Acquisition Note

Special Collections purchased these materials.

Related Archival Materials

Interested researchers may also wish to consult:

Missing Title

  1. MS.2271: Byron De La Beckwith Letter, 1972 March 21.
Title
Finding Aid for the Byron de la Beckwith Correspondence, Photographs, and Other Materials
Status
completed
Author
Elizabeth Dunham
Date
2010 March 1
Description rules
dacs
Language of description
English

Repository Details

Part of the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives Repository

Contact:
Knoxville USA