Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #38: Pleas from Prison

De La Beckwith, probably in the 1970s

“The arrest of De La threatened to bring on more demonstrations by the Negroes. About 50 showed up at the Court House at noon and decided to eat lunch on the steps. Sheriff John Ed Cothran advised his deputies the group could stay there as long as they remained quiet and didn’t cause a disturbance. City police kept the building under observation from across the street.

“When the Commercial Appeal photographer, Bob Williams, started into Thompson-Turner Drugstore across the street, a local cotton merchant, Ace Sayle, who was always around when there was a demonstration, tried to grab his camera. There were two policemen standing just outside and I asked them if they could stop him from harassing Williams, who was with me. They just grinned and did nothing.

“In 1975 De La was convicted by a five-member, all-black jury in New Orleans on a charge of transporting explosives into that city where he allegedly planned to blow up the home of a prominent Jewish leader. He was sentenced to five years in the Angola prison, where he spent most of his time writing letters asking for money and stamps. When we had our three-class reunion in 1978 someone sent him a copy of our program with all the addresses of classmates in it, and he immediately began contacting all of them for help. In a letter to Mary [Evans Bartling, Sara’s older sister], he stated, ‘I realize you and your tribe hear of me via the controlled news media from time to time. Ouch!! Please do not consider my current plea for aid as charity. I am at war with satanic forces of evil for my life and that of this white Christian Republic. I need all the U.S. postage stamps mailed here to me that I can get (now) 10 sheets would not last me 2 months such is the volume of mail that I must send out to survive!!!!’ The letter raved on and on and closed ‘With all best wishes for you and yours—one who grew up in your neighborhood and am 100% on your side. Still very active in all white Christian causes—very.’

“The last time I saw him was in Piggly Wiggly when he greeted me loudly and told me I was working for the ‘Jews Media’ and then added ‘Get it? Jews Media, not news media.’ For a while he was living in Carroll County and then we heard he was up in Tennessee, where hopefully he will remain [written in 1990].”

Ed. note: Beckwith was retried for the assasination of Medgar Evers in 1994 and convicted of first-degree murder by a jury of 8 blacks and 4 whites. He lost an appeal and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying at University Medical Center in Jackson in January, 2001.

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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