JACKSON, MISS. -- This old southern capital, divided by stark racial hatred three decades ago, is preparing uneasily to relive the worst nightmare left from those days of violence.
Officials have dug deeply into the city's past, scraping dangerously at the raw edges of its soul, to resurrect the murder case of black civil rights leader Medgar Evers, gunned down in his driveway by a sniper's bullet June 12, 1963.
His suspected killer is Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist whose two trials for the crime ended with deadlocked juries. Now, as prosecutors reach into the Tennessee hill country to bring Beckwith, 70 and ailing, back for a third trial, the mood here is a troubled mix of pride and apprehension.
Blacks and whites say reopening the Evers case is an opportunity for Mississippi to reverse old wrongs and demonstrate to the nation how this state, once a brutal bastion of white supremacy, has progressed. Yet quietly, many fret about how much good can come from rooting around in a bloody and violent past.
The reopening has prompted a call for an investigative organization, fashioned after the Nazi hunters, to look into other murders, lynchings and disappearances of blacks that litter Mississippi's history.
Some would like to see new charges in cases ranging from the heavily publicized murders in 1964 of three civil rights workers buried in an earthen dam near here to the gruesome killing nine years earlier of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black who whistled at a white woman.
"We can never get beyond the past until we acknowledge how ugly and mean Mississippi was in the 1960s," said David Sansing, a history professor at the University of Mississippi. "The Evers case could be a catharsis. But there are dozens of these cases out there. If we open up every one of them, I'm not so sure of the benefit. A lot of white people are going to get nervous. It's going to start getting into their families."
Evers's assassination ignited the civil rights movement and helped to mobilize Washington against hate crimes victimizing blacks in the deep South.
Evers was as heroic a figure to Mississippi blacks as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was to blacks across America. Field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi, Evers had applied for admission to the University of Mississippi in 1954, eight years before James Meredith broke that color barrier. He sued to integrate Jackson's schools on behalf of his three children.
When he was killed, Evers was organizing a campaign to integrate municipal workers here; just after his death, Jackson hired its first black police officer.
Evers was shot in the back with a rifle so powerful that the bullet passed through his body, tore a hole in his chest, then shattered a front window in his house before penetrating an interior wall and ricocheting off the refrigerator.
George Smith, then a young, black college student, met Evers a few days before he was killed and attended Beckwith's trials in 1964. Smith was apprehensive at first about reliving one of the most painful experiences of his life.
"There was no reason to think he would be convicted then," Smith said, "and there is still some question whether or not this case can go forward now and get a conviction."
Smith still gets tears in his eyes when he recounts how Evers helped prepare him to take the required literacy test so he could register to vote. In 1963, among questions used to intimidate blacks was a demand to interpret, in writing, the Constitution. Smith went to Evers's office for advice.
"We were all afraid to go down and register," Smith said. "Medgar met with me more for encouragement than advice on the questions. After I registered, he wanted to sit back down with me so I could tell him how it went. I was supposed to see him the next day. But that night, he was shot."
Smith was elected to the Hinds County Commission in 1979 and now operates out of the same gray granite courthouse where he faced unfriendly white voter registration officials 28 years ago.
"I think reopening the case shows that, even though you're black in Mississippi, our system works," he said. "If this case goes through, it would mean we have come a long way."
The case was resurrected early last year after the Jackson Clarion Ledger published an article about another skeleton from Mississippi's past, the State Sovereignty Commission. Established in 1956 to preserve segregation, the commission spied on civil rights workers and used the information to thwart them.
The commission was dismantled in 1973 and its files sealed for 50 years. But some of the files on Evers's murder made their way to the Clarion Ledger.
In the Evers case, the commission screened prospective jurors and advised Beckwith's defense team about their heritage, racial views and occupation and social affiliation. Jurors regarded by the commission as "fair" made the panel; those with "improper thinking" did not.
County prosecutors convened a grand jury to investigate possible jury tampering, and the commission was found to have acted improperly but not illegally. By then, however, momentum was building to reopen the case.
In March 1989, the district attorney's office announced that it was reconstructing the files.
Beckwith's first trial ended with the jury deadlocked 6 to 6. Afterward, the Saturday Evening Post said: "In light of Mississippi's history, and the fears and hatreds which still haunt that troubled land, the fact that six white men held out for conviction was in itself a victory for the law."
In the second deadlock, eight jurors voted for acquittal.
Beckwith, a 42-year-old fertilizer salesman, had been a cocky witness, even aiming the murder weapon at one juror in a demonstration of his rifle-handling skills. Then-Gov. Ross Barnett once stopped by the defense table to shake Beckwith's hand. Beckwith eventually went home to Greenwood, Miss., to a hero's welcome.
The state's case had been strong but circumstantial. The rifle, a 1917-vintage Enfield 30.06, was recovered from a clump of honeysuckle vines across the street from Evers's house. Beckwith's fingerprint was on the 6-power telescopic sight.
Two taxi drivers recalled that, several days before the murder, a man who looked like Beckwith had asked them where Evers lived, and a carhop at Joe's Drive In, 300 feet from Evers's house, saw someone that night park a white Valiant like the one Beckwith drove.
"But nobody could say, 'I saw him,' " said John Fox III, the assistant district attorney in both trials. "We had no witnesses to discredit his alibi witnesses."
The defense produced three witnesses, including two police officers, who placed Beckwith in Greenwood, 97 miles away, 30 minutes after the murder, and the state's case sank.
Two witnesses now have come forward to contradict Beckwith's alibi. The Rev. Robert L.T. Smith, Sr., 90, has told prosecutors that he saw Beckwith in Jackson on the night of the murder. Willie Osborne, 81, a deacon at New Jerusalem Baptist Church where civil rights leaders met the night Evers was killed, is prepared to testify similarly.
"You have to understand the period," Myrlie Evers, Medgar's widow, now a Los Angeles public works commissioner, told the Los Angeles Times. "Even if you had seen the person pull the trigger, there would be a reluctance to say anything because your life was on the line, your business was on the line and there was an attitude, and rightly so, that it would make no difference whatsoever if you said anything."
In many ways, the Clarion Ledger symbolizes the evolution in Mississippi since then.
In the 1960s, the staunchly pro-segregationist newspaper freely printed the word "nigger" and referred to civil rights workers of any color as "outside agitators." A front-page headline on the case proclaimed: "Californian Is Charged With Murder Of Evers," seizing on a technicality: Beckwith, descendant of an old Mississippi family, had spent most of his life in the state but had been born in California while his mother lived there briefly.
In the late 1970s, the Clarion Ledger underwent a transformation. In 1983, it won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on the failure of school desegregation. Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter credits the paper's reports on the Sovereignty Commission as the driving force in reopening the Evers case.
"The case still left such a bad taste in your mouth," he said.
Slowly, one was assembled. Myrlie Evers sent prosecutors the transcript of the first trial; the state's copy had been destroyed. In June, DeLaughter confirmed recovery of the rifle and said he had found an obscure book written in 1975 by a member of the John Birch Society in which Beckwith allegedly confessed to the crime.
In the book, "Klandestine," Delmar Dennis, a disenchanted Ku Klux Klan member and FBI informer quotes Beckwith as saying at a Klan meeting:
"Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children. We ask them to do that for us. We should do just as much. So let's get in there and kill those enemies, including the president, from the top down."
DeLaughter, born in Jackson, does not remember civil rights battles in his home town. At 37, he is the same age as Evers when he was slain. So repressed was the community's memory of those days that DeLaughter said he had never heard of the Evers case until 1975 when he read a newspaper story about Beckwith.
It recounted how Beckwith had been stopped in his car in New Orleans with a home-made bomb and directions to the house of the leader of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and was about to begin serving a five-year prison term.
In December, Beckwith was at his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn., with a giant Confederate flag hanging from the eaves when authorities arrived to arrest him and seek extradition to Jackson. Jailed in Chattanooga, he is appealing the extradition order and has vigorously denied killing Evers or making the remarks cited in "Klandestine."
Ronnie Barber, who runs a service station on Signal Mountain's main drag, said most people there were familiar with Beckwith's supremacist views.
"When my mother died," Barber recalled, "Beckwith came to the funeral, and he said to my nephew at the graveyard, 'This is the way a funeral ought to be. No niggers and no Jews.' "
In Mississippi, this case offers much to show that the state has moved forward in the way Evers hoped that it would.
"Whites Only" restrooms in the Hinds County Courthouse now exist only in grainy black-and-white photographs exhibited in a nearby museum. The judge will not have to grant special permission for black spectators to sit in the front rows with whites. The prosecutor will not feel obliged to ask potential jurors, as District Attorney William Waller did in 1964, if they thought "killing a nigger was a crime." Nor will the Clarion Ledger refer to Myrlie Evers as "the Evers woman," as was its style when writing about black women then.
In many other ways, though, progress has been elusive in Jackson. If Beckwith is convicted, many people will regard that as a victory for civil rights. But it will be a symbolic one.
Laws have forced integration at schools, city parks and lunch counters, but old attitudes lurk below the surface. Battles still are waged about race and poverty, less violently but no less bitterly. Jackson is predominantly black, but blacks struggle for a foothold economically.
The evidence is visible in the black neighborhood where Evers's headquarters was located. Thriving then, the area now is rundown and ravaged by drugs. The evidence also is visible in downtown restaurants where business executives lunch, nearly all patrons being white and nearly all waiters being black.
"You can still sense it," George Smith said. "In politics, if you're trying to get certain things done, or if you're trying to move things forward, you will find someone easing up to you and saying, 'Why mess with that? Why change the rules?' "