Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoirs # 30: Murderous Insanity

“Early in June of 1963 we were watching a Jackson television station when [Medgar] Evers came on with a rather strong plea for Negroes to register to vote. At the time we commented that he certainly was brave to appear on TV with such remarks knowing how many white people there were listening who were developing a growing fear of racial disturbances. Then on June 12 we were in Birmingham on a short trip and awoke to the morning news with a bulletin that an NAACP leader in Jackson, Medgar Evers, had been shot and killed as he stepped from his car at his home. We knew this would mean trouble but little knew that Greenwood would be involved. The newspapers and the television news in the coming days reported on the search for the killer.

“Around midnight on June 23 I received a call from someone on the desk at the Commercial Appeal. The caller asked if I knew anyone named Byron De La Beckwith. I replied that I had known ‘Delay,’ as we called him, most of my life and had grown up in the same neighborhood with him. He then informed me that the FBI had arrested him on Saturday afternoon, June 22, and charged him with the murder of Medgar Evers, and he said they would be needing full coverage the next day.

“I did not sleep well the rest of the night knowing I was going to have to work on a story about De La, who was known by everyone to be extremely volatile and eccentric and quite rabid on the race question. I certainly did not want my byline on any story about De La. At seven o’clock the next morning my boss, Gene Rutland, was on the phone telling me to get as much information as I could on De La and saying he was sending Ed Moore from the Greenville Bureau and a reporter and photographer from Memphis to assist me.

“We all knew De La was very outspoken. We had read his letters to the editor on the race issue, and he had passed out handbills which he had printed expressing his views. He had consistently caused trouble at the Episcopal Church where he was a communicant when he thought the church or some of its leaders were too liberal on the race question.

“The Commercial Appeal asked me to take a picture of the dilapidated old house where he was living in my old neighborhood. The house was on the site of the present Federal Building. He had moved back into it after he and his wife, Willie, separated. That picture went out on the telephoto machine on my kitchen floor that night and was sent to newspapers all over the country. The house somehow told a story of faded Southern aristrocracy. De La had come from a ‘good’ family, one that was still reliving their past glory. The house had belonged to his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. L.P. Yerger. Yerger was an attorney and Mrs. Yerger had been a Southworth.  A Southworth had also married old Judge Kimbrough (grandfather of my neighbor Lenore McLean) and they were all quite proud of their ancestry even though folks who had lived in Greenwood a long time looked on them as strange and in some cases ‘crazy.’ They could cite some insanity both in the Yerger and Kimbrough relatives, and many felt that De La never had been quite right.”

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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6 Responses to Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoirs # 30: Murderous Insanity

  1. Jenny adams says:

    Oh man, i used to have nightmares about De La. He always looked like Freddy Kruger in them and was coming to kill me. My grandmother should have never told me those stories but i always begged to hear them anyway.

    • sec040121 says:

      I think she had nightmares about him as well. He was wildly unpredictable and his thought processes were so garbled that anything could have happened. Even when he was ancient and imprisoned, she refused to be interviewed about him. He thought he was such a hero and he brought so much dishonor and conflict to Greenwood.

  2. Jenny adams says:

    I really like the honesty in this blog. I know you are just putting in her words verbatim – but it takes guts. For example, in the one you published today on White Shoes White Defense, I’m glad that you included that Jesse gave him $5. It happened. And I see Jesse’s point that she had seen De La grow up. She didn’t like what he was doing, but she also still saw him as a lost little kid. I wish he had grown up differently – had known love and had a different set of role models. He would have turned out differently and maybe history would have been changed for it. Then again, maybe without De La, things wouldn’t have grown to the fever pitch necessary to reach to accomplish change. Who knows. He’s dead now, right?
    Keep going with the blog!

    • sec040121 says:

      Sometimes it’s hard not to do some light editing on Sara’s words, but that would be wrong. She was a woman of her own times, who tried to do the best she could within the confines of her world, and Jessie was the same. I strongly doubt either one of them ever intentionally did anything to harm or hurt a black person, but their opinions about equality would not be acceptable now. Jessie was kind to everyone, even De La, unless they were Jehovah’s Witnesses on her doorstep. If she had had a pistol, I believe she would have blown some of them across the levee.I’m not sure De La would have turned out any better even with stable parents. He was a truly deranged man with deep psychiatric issues, and unfortunately he fed off the atmosphere of hatred and fear that enveloped Mississippi in the 1960s. But if you just met him on the street, as a young white woman, you would think he was a courtly, if silly, little old man. It would be interesting to see the prison psychiatrist’s records on him, but I don’t suppose we ever will.

  3. Debbie Wiles says:

    “I strongly doubt either one of them ever intentionally did anything to harm or hurt a black person, but their opinions about equality would not be acceptable now. ”

    This is one thing I struggle with in writing about white southerners in 1964 Mississippi. Thanks for putting it into words.

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