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Special Collections Online at The University of Tennessee

Reed Massengill Portrait of a Racist Collection

Identifier: MS-3525

This collection was compiled by Reed Massengill during the research and publication of his book, Portrait of a Racist. Much of the early research was furnished by mail by Byron de la Beckwith through his jail correspondence with Massengill, and by Massengill's aunt, Mary Louise Williams, who was Beckwith's first wife.

The collection includes FBI records concerning Beckwith's movements released to the subject at his request; court transcripts and records of each of trial Beckwith was involved with; newspaper clippings, editorial cartoons, magazine and scholarly articles collected by Massengill; original writings by Beckwith and others; correspondence and interviews gathered from Beckwith's and William's personal collections as well as news and archival sources; Massengill's correspondence with peers and publishers; photographs and negatives of book and interview subjects; and interviews conducted by Massengill on VHS and Audio tapes.


  • 1918-1994

Conditions Governing Access

Collections are stored offsite, and a minimum of 2 business days are 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.


11 Linear Feet (11 Manuscript boxes)


The Reed Massengill Portrait of a Racist Collection houses all research, correspondence, drafts and other papers related to Massengill's 1994 biography of his uncle, Byron de la Beckwith, a white supremacist accused of the 1963 murder of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers. Although Beckwith was tried twice in the years following the murder, both trials ended in hung juries. A third trial in 1993 finally convicted him of first-degree murder. He died on January 21, 2001.

Biographical/Historical Note

Byron De La Beckwith was born on November 9, 1920 in Colusa, California. His father, the elder Byron De La Beckwith, was one of Colusa's most prominent citizens. Despite great early business success, at the time of his death in 1926 he owed almost all of his once substantial holdings to creditors. The newly widowed and impoverished Susan Southworth Yerger Beckwith consequently chose to relocate herself and five-year-old son to the Yerger family home in Greenwood, Mississippi, where young Beckwith spent the remainder of his childhood and early adulthood.

On June 12, 1963, NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was found by his wife in front of their home in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been shot once in the chest, and died later after being taken to the hospital. Police found the sniper's rifle in a nearby thicket and subsequent tests proved that the gun bore Beckwith's fingerprint. Although several witnesses for the defense put Beckwith outside of Jackson on the night of the murder, other witnesses for the prosecution insisted that his car had been seen nearby just before the murder and that he had been seen around town in days prior asking locals for the Evers' address.

Two subsequent trials in which all-male, all-white juries presided failed to reach a verdict, and Beckwith was eventually released. Evers' murder went unsolved for three decades. In 1993, Beckwith was living in Signal Mountain, Tennessee when he was extradited to Mississippi to be retried using new evidence. This third trial convicted him of first-degree murder, which he later appealed. At the time of his death on January 21, 2001, he remained in the custody of the State of Mississippi.


This collection consists of 11 boxes divided into 9 series:

Series I: Evers Assassination and Early Beckwith Trials Series II: Interim Series III: Extradition, Retrial, and Appeals Series IV: Portrait of a Racist Research Series V: Beckwith Family Materials Series VI: Correspondence Sub-Series A: Collected by Massengill Sub-Series B: Conducted by Massengill Series VII: Interviews Sub-Series A: Collected by Massengill Sub-Series B: Conducted by Massengill Series VIII: Portrait of a Racist Drafts Series IX: Media Sub-Series A: Photographs and Negatives Sub-Series B: Video Sub-Series C: Audio

Acquisition Note

These materials were donated through Reed Massengill in 2006 and 2007. Materials originate from Reed Massingill, Byron de la Beckwith, and Beckwith's family members.

Repository Details

Part of the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville Repository

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Knoxville TN 37996 USA