Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)

 

 

 

Director:    Rob Reiner.

Starring:    Alec Baldwin (Bobby DeLaughter), Whoopi Goldberg (Myrlie Evers), James Woods (Byron De La Beckwith), Craig T. Nelson (Ed Peters), Susanna Thompson (Peggy Loyd), Lucas Black (Burt DeLaughter), William H. Macy (Charlie Crisco), Virginia Madsen (Dixie DeLaughter), Wayne Rogers (Morris Dees), Diane Ladd (Grandma Caroline Moore).

trial of the man who assassinated Mississippi NAACP organizer Medgar Evers

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Mississippi Delta, June 1963.  Byron De La Beckwith, rabid Mississippi racist, drives his car and parks at Joe's Drive-In fast food place.  People at the eating place notice the white car because it has a long antenna going from the rear bumper all the way over to the front of the car.  Some wonder if it is a police car.  Beckwith gets out a large hunting rifle with a powerful scope. At about the same time Medgar Evers, head of the Mississippi NAACP, is driving home to his wife and three children.  Beckwith walks through a little patch of woods to station himself at the edge of the woods across from Medgar's house.

Medgar Evers arrives home, gets out of his car and just starts walking up to the carport.  Beckwith fires and hits Medgar in the back.  Mrs. Evers and the children hear the shout.  His wife runs out to see her husband covered in blood.  A little later the three children come out.  Everyone cries for Edgar who only says three times:  "Turn me loose!"

Hinds County Courthouse, Jackson, Mississippi.  Beckwith sees himself as a hero and so do many white Mississippians, whether they belong to a racist organization or not.  The Citizens Council has already raised thousands for Beckwith's defense.  The police officers also treat Beckwith as a hero and shake his hand.  And Beckwith just eats it up.  He loves the limelight.  The murderer even says:  "Glad to be here."  He is extremely confident that he will never be convicted, because no white Mississippian has ever been convicted of a crime against a black man. 

Just to prove the depth of the ties of Mississippi politicians to racism, as Myrlie Evers is testifying about the assassination, former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett walks right into the courtroom from a side door near Myrlie and walks over to Beckwith and warmly shakes hands with the racist.  One reporter remarks to a fellow reporter:  "There's not a court in America that would stand for that."  The other reporter says:  "What's America got to do with anything?  This is Mississippi."

Beckwith gets on the stand grinning like a Cheshire cat.  He proudly states his name and talks about his family heritage.  His grandmother was a close personal friend of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.  He denies that he shot Medgar Evers. 

The February 7, 1964 newspaper carries the headline about the mistrial declared in the Beckwith case.  A new trial will begin in April.  On April 17th a mistrial is declared for the second time.  Beckwith gets a hero's welcome in his hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi.  He rides as if he were sitting on a float at the Rose Bowl Parade in a shinny red convertible.  This is how bad Mississippi was.  He says to a reporter:  "I got tears in my eyes.  For Dixie, huh?"  Meanwhile, Myrlie cries as she washes her blood stained carport. 

October, 1989.  Hinds County Courthouse, Jackson, Mississippi.  Bobby DeLaughter, a handsome young white man, finishes up a court case before a jury.  His secretary Clara reminds him that he has a luncheon with his wife and their two sets of parents.  His boss, Ed Peters, comes into Bobby's office and says that Mrs. Evers is calling for the re-prosecution of Beckwith.  Bobby comments that Medgar Evers was killed 25 years ago.  He also says this is ridiculous.  Ed agrees, but Bobby has to dig up whatever there is about the old case. 

Bobby asks Clara to bring him the files on Evers.  She doesn't know who that is, so Bobby says he was the Mississippi civil rights leader "that got himself shot" in the 1960s.  Bobby goes to lunch.  At the table Bobby ignores his wife Dixie and she ignores him.  He delivers the shocking news that Mrs. Evers wants to reopen the Beckwith case.  Dixie tells Bobby just refuse to take the case.  His own father asks when are these liberals going to realize that the 1960's are over?  His mother says she thought that Beckwith was found not guilty.  His mother-in-law says that there were two hung juries.  Her late husband, Judge Moore, was a spectator at both trials.  Bobby himself dismisses the whole thing as some political stunt and doesn't think anything of it.  His father says:  "Well, son, for your sake, it had better not.  You want to be a judge someday.  You persecute a 70-year-old man, guilty or not, over some nigger,you'll have everybody in Mississippi lined up against you."  He uses what now is called the N word while his black waiter comes to take his order.  Father is not embarrassed at all.  He just talks to the waiter like they were old friends. 

Mrs. Evers comes to the courthouse.  She is with the lawyer Morris Dees founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center (who would eventually figure out a way to sue racial terrorist organizations for their use of violence against minorities and deprive them of money and land).    Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger introduces himself to them.   He explains he was the one who wrote the story on the jury tampering in the Beckwith trials.  Mrs. Evers grabs him with both hands on his elbows and thanks him very much for his work.  He asks her what her chances of success are?  She says:  "I've passed this way before.  Let's just say I've adopted an attitude of tempered optimism."

Mr. Dees passionately tells Ed Peters about the corruption in the Beckwith trials.  The state agency known as the Sovereignty Commission worked against the D.A. to ensure there were enough Beckwith sympathizers on the jury to keep Beckwith out of jail.  Ed says they can't prove jury tampering.  Bobby comes in and is introduced.  Dees and Evers are shocked to see that the total file on the Beckwith trials consists of just two pages.  Everything else, the rifle, the bullet, the original trial transcript, are all gone.  Myrlie reads from the two pages:  "To the Jackson  police department:  When you catch whoever killed the nigger, pin a medal on him, because he just did Mississippi one hell of a favor."  She also reads:  "A female who refused to identify herself stated that she'd heard a rumor that Medgar Evers' wife had gotten jealous of Lena Horne . . . and might have gotten her brother-in-law to kill Evers."  Dees tells Ed:  "The only reason why the cops wrote that garbage down was because they actually took it seriously.  . . .  The murder of Medgar Evers was a race crime, a political crime, an assassination.  And Byron De La Beckwith is free today thanks to a racist jury, a racist police department and a racist D.A.'s office."  This last remarks makes Ed very angry and he defends the D.A. in the case.  Myrlie intervenes.  She tells Ed:  "You've given me all the reasons why you can't pursue this.  Perhaps you can find one reason why you can." 

Bobby catches up with Evers and Dees at the elevator.  He tries to explain that Peters is a good man, but they just don't have a case.  He suggests that maybe Mrs. Evers should let this thing go.  Mrs. Evers tells him that she can see why he might say that, because that's just what she told Medgar:  "Let it go.  Let's get out of Mississippi."  Medgar responded:  "I don't know if I'm going to heaven or to hell, but I'm going from Jackson." 

Bobby comes home.  He has three young children.  At night in bed, the little daughter Clara comes to them to say that there is a ghost in her room.  Dad carries her to her room to look for the ghost.  He says the song "Dixie" is a favorite of the ghosts and they will go away if the song is sung.  Clara asks him to sing it and he does so. 

The next day Bobby starts researching the case against Beckwith.  A detective on the Evers case shows him around the murder site.   Bobby asks him about the missing rifle and the detective tells him in those days after trials were over, the evidence would disappear.  The bullet fired that fateful night went all the way through Evers, slammed through a glass window, went through a wall, ricocheted off the refrigerator and busted the coffeepot.  It came to rest on the kitchen counter. 

At home Bobby watches some video tape of Medgar Evers.  Dixie comes into the room and tells Bobby that he is trying to humiliate her in front of her friends and family by taking this Evers case.  She finishes with:  "Fine.  Look at your tapes.  That's all you'd better do."

Bobby speaks with Ed about re-trying the case.  Ed is opposed to the idea.  He is concerned that this will be a public relations disaster for Mississippi. 

Oregon, 1990.  Bobby calls to talk to Myrlie.  She is extremely skeptical of the D.A.'s office in Hinds County.  Bobby does tell her that he is interested in the case and that he will keep in touch with Mrs. Evers.  In the room, Dixie overhears the conversation.  She does not approve. 

Bobby talks to an investigator he asked for specifically, named Charlie Crisco.  Crisco speaks out against re-opening the case.  There are plenty of murder cases pending right now.  They should work on those cases, he say.  Bobby says that's right and that's why they will be working on the Evers case in their spare time.  The two men go through the newspaper files.  The next day Bobby speaks to another investigator that offers his help to reinvestigate the case.  His name is Benny Bennett.   

Bobby tells his two investigators that they are going to start by paying a visit to the two Greenwood Cops, Holley and Cresswell, who provided Beckwith with a false alibi.  They testified that they saw Beckwith 90 miles away at the time of the murder.  They start with Mr. Holley.  He is presently an alderman.  Holley backs up his previous testimony.  Cresswell does the same. 

From a primitive gas station, Bobby calls Mrs. Evers.  She is not too pleased and tells him:  "Mr. DeLaughter, this really isn't necessary."  He tells her the bad news of no progress.  She really doesn't trust him and sarcastically says she will be on pins and needles until his next call.  Bobby comes home late at night.  His wife has been waiting for him.  She is all packed and ready to leave.  Dixie is even going to leave the children behind. 

Six months later.  The three investigators watch a recently taped interview with Beckwith.  The racist is very much unrepentant and spews his racist ideology for all to hear.  Benny says Beckwith is daring them to get him.  Ed Peters warns Bobby that he needs to work on their current caseload.  He says:  "This office can't keep covering for you with the judges."   Bobby rushes home to take care of his kids.  His smallest son wants daddy to explain what he's been doing that grandpa Russell would not approve of.   While talking about the differences between him and grandpa, Bobby mentions grandpa's gun collection.  Then he suddenly has an idea about which he is extremely excited.  He runs off telling a family friend to watch the boys.  He calls Benny and asks him about missing evidence in old cases.  Benny says his father told him that people used to take the evidence home as souvenirs and such. 

Bobby goes to his mother-in-law's house to look for the Beckwith rifle.  He brings his three children to her house.  Caroline is upset because it's her bridge night.  Bobby ignores this and asks about the rifle that Judge Moore used to hold open the door to his study.   He runs up the stairs to look in the study.  Caroline comes after him saying she doesn't like him running around the place.  As she talks, Bobby sees a chest.  He opens it and grabs the rifle in question.  He checks the serial number on the weapon and becomes ecstatic with glee!

Crisco tells Bobby now he has something good to tell Mrs. Evers.  Bobby says he's not going to tell her, because this is too important to leave the office.  (Which is foolish, since there are probably many Beckwith supporters in the D.A.'s office and they know about the rifle.)   Bobby says that his key to success in the case will be to get Beckwith on the stand and if he knows that they've got the murder weapon, he'll clam up and won't testify..  Going out to his car, Bobby sees the word "traitor" sprawled on his car with paint and his front window broken. 

At a barbecue Dad tells Bobby that there will always be segregation.  Bobby says he doesn't agree with that. 

Crisco brings in a book called "Klandestine" with a confession from Beckwith that he killed Medgar Evers.  The book was written 20 years ago by an FBI formant, Delmar Dennis.  He attended a Klan rally in August 1965.  Beckwith was the featured speaker and he said:  "Killing that nigger gave me no more discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children."  Out the investigators go to talk to Delmar.  They meet him at a prearranged spot.  Dennis comes out from hiding.  He tells the investigators that he had a change of heart when up in Neshoba County they killed those three freedom riders:  Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner.  Bobby wants Dennis to testify in court, but Dennis says that "Beckwith . . . is the craziest, most dangerous son of a bitch I ever come across."  He adds:  "I can't make no promises."  The last think Dennis says is:  "If I do this thing, you gotta promise me protection."

Bobby comes home in the middle of the day and finds his son Burt fighting with another boy.  He separates them and asks what's going on?  Burt says Eddy called dad a nigger lover.  Eddy says:  "My dad says you're after a man for something that isn't even a crime."  Bobby tells Eddy to get on home.  He takes Burt to the hospital.  His mother is there and she scolds Bobby for putting the children's lives at risk.  Bobby says he can't understand why every decent person in Mississippi isn't outraged over what happened here 27 years ago.  He asks his mother:  "You're not, are you?"  Another questions is:  "Why didn't you cry?"  He keeps badgering her until she gets mad and says she didn't cry:  "Because he tried to destroy our way of life."  The conversation is broken off when the doctor comes out with Burt.  Burt can go home.  His nose is not busted.  As Bobby and the family are leaving, the female doctor says to him:  "I think what you're trying to do is very important."  Bobby is deeply affected by the kind remark. 

At night Bobby explains to his children what is going on.  Later in the night, Bobby gets a threatening call from Beckwith himself.  He tells Bobby to tell Dennis Delmar he could be killed.  Claire says that the ghost is back in her room again.  She wants him to sing "Dixie" for her.  But this time, Bobby realizes how much racism is associated with that song and decides on a more appropriate tune. 

Bobby has lunch with the doctor at the hospital cafeteria.  Bobby admits that this is a date of sorts.  They talk and get along well.  And, more importantly, this doctor is very supportive of what Bobby is doing in the Beckwith case. 

At work, Jerry Mitchell of the press calls, telling Bobby he knows that Bobby has the rifle.  There will be a story tomorrow about how the D.A. has been keeping things from the public on this case and how Bobby has been lying to Mrs. Evers.  He now is asking Bobby for a comment.

Bobby calls Mrs. Evers.  She wants to know why he lied to her.  Myrlie says she's the last person who would ever jeopardize this case.  She thinks there's something that he's not telling her.  Bobby swears there is not a cover up.  Bobby also gets heat from the black politicians.  He and Peters are accused of just putting on a show for the black community.  One may says Peters and DeLaughter are no more than a pair of lying racists.

Ed tells Bobby that black lawyer Pat Bennett is going to give him some help on the Beckwith case and the other cases.  Bobby doesn't like it.

Bobby and his doctor friend are watching a lawyer movie in a theater.  Bobby is so preoccupied by the case that he has to get up and make a call to Mrs. Evers.  He asks her to get the black politicians off his back, especially now since they do have a good chance of going to court with the case.  Mrs. Evers thanks him for the call and hangs up.  He is furious with Myrlie and tells his girlfriend that she is just like all the rest of them.  The good doctor, however, makes a very good point when she says, if he doesn't or can't trust Mrs. Evers, then why should Mrs. Evers trust Bobby?

In his office, Bobby is told that he is expected to bring Pat Bennett up to speed on the case and cases.  Bobby gets so frustrated that he decides to go for a ride in the rain.  Just as he is going toward the courthouse door, Mrs. Evers shows up.  She gives him a copy of the trial transcript and tells him that the black politicians will not be bothering him.  Bobby responds:  "Thank you, ma'am.  It's truly appreciated."  She replies:  "Let's get the son of a bitch." 

The grand jury hands down an indictment of Beckwith.  Bobby and Myrlie hug each other over the news.  The Evers family permits the exhumation of Edgar's body so an autopsy can be conducted to replace the lost autopsy report.  Bobby marries his doctor.  And Beckwith will finally be extradited from Tennessee.  

Bobby learns that Medgar's brother Charles will not be coming to the trial, so Bobby goes over to see him in order to plead his case.  Charles, a disc jockey, says he won't come because if he saw Beckwith, he would kill him with his own hands. 

Bobby picks up Myrlie at the airport for the trial. 

At home Bobby continues to work on the case in bed.  He gets a phone call about a bomb having been planted in his house that will go off in two minutes.  Mom and dad have to grab the kids and get out of there.  They watch from across a creek.  The police come to investigate, but find no bomb.  The family goes to stay in the Holiday Inn.  Bobby talks about giving up on the case for the safety of his children.  His wife steps up to the plate and talks some sense into her husband.  Bobby goes for a drive and ends up at the assassination spot.  And once again he visualizes the murder of Edgar, the crying Myrlie and the poor children.  He comes back to the hotel room with renewed commitment. 

The opening statements are given by the lawyers.  Bobby calls Beckwith a back-shooting coward, which irritates Beckwith a great deal.  He also mentions how Beckwith bragged about getting away with murder.  Myrlie Evers is the first witness to testify.  She tells the story of the assassination from her perspective.  Later another witness and Bobby make sure that the serial number on the rifle matches the serial number in the records kept on the weapon.  Another witness testifies that he found Beckwith's fingerprint on the weapon. 

The jury has eight blacks on it. 

Delmar Dennis testifies about Beckwith's confession at a Klan meeting before 100 people.  He adds that Beckwith told the men that if they commit crimes like his, they will get away with it, as he did.  Another man testifies about Beckwith saying he killed Evers.  Beckwith's lawyers are doing very poorly.  They just attack the persons on the stand to try to discredit them and their testimony.  A white lady testifies about another confession by Beckwith.  The defense lawyer implies that her testimony is not credible because she has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. 

After the day's trial, Beckwith pops out with more of his racist spiel.  Myrlie makes the comment that she once hated that man so much that she actually made inquiries into having him killed. 

The next day at work Beckwith confronts Bobby in the men's room.  He says Bobby should be run out of the state.  Beckwith also says even if he did kill Evers, there's nothing Bobby or anyone else can do about it.  Beckwith says:  "The point is:  You ain't never gonna get 12 people to convict me of killing a nigger in the state of Mississippi."  In the trial the defense calls on James Holley to take the stand.  He repeats his false testimony that he gave in the first two trials.  Holley says also that he didn't know the accused.  On cross-examination, it comes out that Holley and Beckwith were old army buddies and went way back.  It also comes out that it took Holley over eight months to come forward with his original testimony, while his old buddy sat in jail.

Beckwith will not take the stand, the defense rests.  Bobby and Myrlie are shocked and disappointed at this.  Myrlie says:  "Coward to the end."  The closing arguments are presented.  In Bobby's office, Myrlie pays a huge compliment to him by saying that he reminds her of her husband Edgar. 

The jury finds Beckwith guilty as charged.  Bobby and Myrlie are ecstatic.  Outside the courthouse many of the people in the crowd cheer the verdict.  Myrlie speaks to the press.  Asked to say how she fells about the jury verdict, she says:  "It's been a long journey."  She lifts her eyes to the sky and says:  "Medgar, I've gone the last mile of the way.  I've gone the last mile of the way.  And all I want to say is yea, Medgar! Yea!"  Medgar's brother stands outside listening.  He seems satisfied and quietly walks away. 

"Byron De La Beckwith was sentenced to life imprisonment.  His case is on appeal."

"In February of 1995, in Washington, D.C., one year after the verdict, Myrlie Evers was elected chairman of the NAACP."

"In November of 1994, Bobby DeLaughter ran for judge of the Mississippi Court of Appeals and was defeated. He remains with the Hinds County District Attorney's Office."

 


Mississippi was a terrible place where there was vigorous cooperation between the racist law enforcement officials, the racist politicians, and the K.K.K., as well as any other racist organization in Mississippi who wanted the latest information on the movements of civil rights workers in the state for the purposes of harassment and even murder.  

The unanimity of racism in Mississippi made brutal murders of Civil Rights workers a badge of  honor among white Mississippians.   Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the murderer of  N.A.A.C.P. organizer Medgar Evers was not brought to justice for many, many years.  

This is the story of the assassination of  Medgar Evers by one of the most rabid racists in a state full of rabid racists.  Alec Baldwin plays the part of Mississippi assistant D.A. Bobby DeLaughter going after the murderer of Medgar Evers, Byron De La Beckwith (James Wood).

 

Terrific movie.  It's good to have a murderous, racist assassinator brought to justice.  Beckwith was like some hideous monster filled with hate and murder.  It was good to see him finally get what he deserved.  In these civil rights movies, there are so many terrible things you have to watch, but at least in this one we gain some amount of catharsis with seeing the evil one punished.  Alec Baldwin was terrific and Whoopi Goldberg very good as Mrs. Evers.  James Woods was also good as that creep Beckwith.   Both my wife and I enjoyed the film. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

 

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