THE GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI
SUBJECTS — U.S./1945 – Present, Diversity, the Law; & Mississippi;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Courage; Justice;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility; Citizenship.
AGE; 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 (for a strong scene of violence and for racist dialogue);
Drama; 1996; 123 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This film recounts the retrial and conviction of the assassin of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, some 30 years after the murder.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1997 Political Film Society Award: Human Rights; 1997 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Woods); Best Make-up; 1997 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Woods).
Featured Actors: Alec Baldwin, Whoopi Goldberg, James Woods, Craig T. Nelson, Susanna Thompson, Virginia Madsen.
Director: Rob Reiner.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
U.S. history classes: Ghosts of Mississippi provides students a deeper look into the Civil Rights Movement by illustrating the dangers of Civil Rights work and the legal system in Mississippi in the segregationist 1960s. It shows a widow’s perseverance and crusade for justice, as well as a prosecutor’s commitment to righting an old wrong. The film also describes Mississippi’s shift over time from a state known for racism to one that would afford justice to the family of a slain Civil Rights activist.
The movie is a valuable addition to a list of works to be read or watched as homework to explore the genre of historical fiction. See TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project. (The discussion questions and assignments set out below are appropriate for history students who watch this movie.) ELA classes: Ghosts of Mississippi affords students from which to research important ideas and exercise valuable writing or verbal presentation skills.
Moderate. The film is honest in its portrayal of the violence, obscenities and racial slurs that dominated the Civil Rights struggle in the south. As the film opens, a man (Medgar Evers) is getting out of his car in the driveway of his home. He is shot in the back. Evers drags himself to the door of his house, blood running from his mouth and his back. He dies in his wife’s arms with his young children about him. A boy has a bloody nose after a fist fight. A dead body is seen in an exhumed casket. In news footage, we see a man kicking another, a dog biting a man, rioting and a hanged man. There are mild obscenities and some racial slurs by the villains.”
“Ghosts of Mississippi” will introduce children to the dangers of Civil Rights work in the South in the 1960s and to the difficulties in obtaining justice for slain Civil Rights workers. The film also shows Mississippi’s change to a state that will afford justice to the family of a slain Civil Rights activist. The movie describes the workings of the legal system, a widow’s perseverance and crusade for justice, as well as a prosecutor’s commitment to righting an old wrong.
Medgar Evers (1925 – 1963) was a black Civil Rights leader and the first Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP. He was instrumental in organizing voter registration drives, boycotts and sit-ins in various parts of the state. Evers is quoted as saying: “You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.”
Medgar Evers was assassinated just after midnight on June 12, 1963. The evening before, President John F. Kennedy had delivered an address to the nation on the need for progress in granting more Civil Rights to black Americans. The assassin was soon discovered to be Byron de la Beckwith, a virulent racist. Evers’ murder caused both national and international uproar. As a World War II veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington, National Cemetery. In 1964 local prosecutors tried to convict de la Beckwith on two separate trials, but on both occasions all white, all male juries could not reach a unanimous verdict. There is no statute of limitations for murder. Almost 30 years later, de la Beckwith was successfully prosecuted by a team headed by Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter.
For biographical sketches about Medgar Evers, see The Mississippi Writers’ Page.
Why was de la Beckwith tried a third time, three decades after the murder? Myrlie Evers never stopped trying to keep the memory of her husband alive and kept pressuring authorities to reopen the case. In 1989, newspaper reporter Jerry Mitchell discovered evidence that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission had secretly provided de la Beckwith’s defense with information about prospective jurors in the 1964 trials. The resulting stories attracted the attention of Assistant District Attorney Bobby DeLaughter. They left a very bad taste in his mouth.
Initially, Mrs. Evers distrusted DeLaughter but eventually, he gained her confidence. The prosecution was required to investigate a case that was 25 years old. In the end, de la Beckwith was convicted almost 30 years after the murder. De la Beckwith died in prison on January 21, 2001.
When word got out that the District Attorney’s office was considering reopening the case against de la Beckwith some people told DeLaughter: “He’s too old.” “The case is too old.” “It will cost the taxpayers too much money.” “It will open up an old wound.” What surprised him was the virulence of the response. The case was striking some nerve among Mississippians. DeLaughter explained his position this way.
I felt that Mississippi and I were being put to the test. We say that no man is above the law; but what if he is seventy years old? We claim that we value all human life; but what if the life is that of a Civil Rights activist in 1963 Mississippi? There is no statute of limitations for murder; but what if it’s been a quarter century? In pursuing justice and maintaining freedom, how much taxpayer money is too much? Finally, if justice has never been finalized in such a despicable and immoral atrocity and pursuing it will open an old wound, is it not then a wound that needs to be reopened and cleansed, instead of continuing to fester over the years, spreading its poison to future generations? [excerpt from Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case]
As shown in the film, DeLaughter also focused on the personal tragedy of the murder, “There were peaks and valleys involved in this and each time I’d be in a low spot, or feel like just giving up and throwing in the towel, I’d take a drive out [to the house where Evers was shot and died]. … It would always bring home to me, no matter what else the case involved, what happened in this driveway to this guy in front of his family — nobody deserves that, and no decent person could turn their back on it.”
The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was charged with preserving segregation in the state. It kept secret files on some 78,000 Civil Rights workers and alleged subversives. The Commission went out of existence in 1973 when the Mississippi governor (the same man who, as district attorney, had tried unsuccessfully to convict de la Beckwith in 1964) vetoed funding for the agency. The Legislature tried to seal the Commission’s files but they have been opened to the public by federal court order.
The files of the Sovereignty Commission reveal that de la Beckwith had applied for a job with the Commission stating that: “[I am] expert with a pistol, good with a rifle and fair with a shotgun — and — RABID ON THE SUBJECT OF SEGREGATION!… I, therefore, request that you select me, among many, as one who will tear the mask from the face of the NAACP and forever rid this fair land of the DISEASE OF INTEGRATION with which it is plagued with.” (sic) While de la Beckwith wasn’t hired, the Sovereignty Commission did help him after the assassination by providing information to the defense about the individuals in the jury pool.
Myrlie Evers left college to marry Medgar Evers. She was his assistant in his work for the NAACP. After he was murdered, she continued his work, speaking for the NAACP at local Civil Rights rallies. She moved to California in 1964, completed her education at Pomona college and began a distinguished career in business and public service. She served as Director of Planning and Development for the Claremont Colleges, Director of Community Relations for ARCO, Commissioner of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works managing 6,000 employees and a $400 million budget (Evers was the first black woman ever to serve in the position), and national President of the NAACP from 1995-1998. Myrlie Evers states: “I have reached a point in my life where I understand the pain and the challenges; and my attitude is one of standing up with open arms to meet them all.” Watch Me Fly (Little, Brown & Co., 1999) Myrlie Evers, written with Melinda Blau.
In the film, Lloyd “Benny” Bennett, one of DeLaughter’s investigators, played himself. His father had participated in the initial investigation into Evers’ assassination. During the second investigation, Bennett and Myrlie Evers became friends.
This film captures the truth of the incident and in most respects is strikingly accurate. There are a few historical inaccuracies. (1) The window of prosecutor DeLaughter’s car was not smashed and painted with a swastika; (2) the meeting in the courthouse men’s room between de la Beckwith and prosecutor DeLaughter didn’t happen; (3) While there was a telephone threat that the DeLaughter house would be bombed, the DeLaughters did not flee their home in panic; (4) it was District Attorney Peters and not Delaughter who cross-examined the alibi witness, a powerful part of the courtroom drama; (5) DeLaughter’s parents were generally supportive of him in the investigation and he was never a member of a country club; (6) DeLaughter didn’t sing “Dixie” to his daughter to put her to sleep; (7) the news conference after the verdict took place in an empty courtroom; not on the courthouse steps.
1. Prosecutor DeLaughter asserted that reopening the wound left by the Medgar Evers’ assassination and retrying a 70 year old man, cleansed the wound and allowed it to heal, rather than to fester and poison future generations. Do you agree with his assessment or do you think that the retrial unnecessarily opened old wounds?
Answers will vary. Most would agree that it is never too late to do justice. There were still racists in Mississippi in 1989, when this case was tried for the third time, but the fact that a jury convicted de la Beckwith proved that the Mississippi justice system had been reformed and by 1989 could deliver justice.
2. What did the assassination of Medgar Evers have in common with the tradition of lynching that had taken the lives of thousands of black people over the years since the Civil War?
Answers will vary. Lynching was a particular kind of murder that had the intention of fomenting fear among black southerners. Evers’ murder did not use a rope but shared the intention of lynch mobs in that it was designed to stop civil right activism in the south.
3. What factors had changed over time in American society that may have influenced both the efforts to prosecute the case against de la Beckwith and the eventual guilty verdict?
All well-reasoned answers are acceptable. Students may suggest that the many victories of the Civil Rights Movement, coupled with new generations coming into power, put the old values and prejudices in the background. They may suggest that mass media, changes in music, film, and attitudes propelled from the 60’s youth movement had a powerful reach into the thinking of the people of Mississippi.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech, given August 28, 1963 said, “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.” How does the prosecution and conviction of de la Beckwith relate to Reverend King’s vision for the United States?
There are several possible responses, but the best will refer to the fact that in the South blacks were kept down by terror which was imposed by lynchings, murder, beatings, cross-burning, and other forms of intimidation.
5. How would you compare the failure of the all-white juries in 1963 and 1964 to convict de la Beckwith and the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on charges of murdering his wife in 1995?
There is no one correct response to this question. But it will probably result in a lively debate.
6. What was wrong with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission aiding the de la Beckwith defense? Or was it wrong at all?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Any well-supported answer will be adequate. One possible answer is that the criminal justice system has safeguards to protect the defendant because usually, the state is much more powerful than the defendant with more resources at its disposal. When a state agency helps a defendant, it upsets that balance and gives the defendant an advantage. Another reason that the intervention of the State Sovereignty Commission was pernicious was that it was promoting a social agenda, i.e., segregation that was illegal as applied to governmental action.
7. Why was it important to retry the case and bring de la Beckwith to justice, even if justice had been delayed for so long?
There are several reasons. Any one of them is sufficient. It is important that wrongdoers know that they cannot act with impunity. The Evers family had a right to justice. The black community had a right to justice. This was a political assassination, one of the kinds of murders that is most destructive to the social fabric of a community. It would continue to do damage to that social fabric until justice was done.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
See the questions in the “Courage” topic above.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
See the general Discussion Questions above.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
See the questions in the “Justice” topic above.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. This film captures the truth of the Evers’ murder and in most respects is strikingly accurate. There are a few historical inaccuracies. Choose three of the following list of inaccuracies and write a brief paragraph on why you think the film’s writers chose to distort some details used to tell the story. Conclude your paragraph with an opinion about whether you, as the screenwriter, would have been creative with the facts:
- The window of prosecutor DeLaughter’s car was not smashed and painted with a swastika;
- The meeting in the courthouse men’s room between de la Beckwith and prosecutor DeLaughter didn’t happen;
- While there was a telephone threat that the DeLaughter house would be bombed, the DeLaughters did not flee their home in panic;
- It was District Attorney Peters and not Delaughter who cross-examined the alibi witness, a powerful part of the courtroom drama;
- DeLaughter’s parents were generally supportive of him in the investigation and he was never a member of a country club;
- DeLaughter didn’t sing “Dixie” to his daughter to put her to sleep;
- The news conference after the verdict took place in an empty courtroom, not on the courthouse steps.
2. Research the biographies of Evers and two other important Civil Rights workers who were instrumental in the progress made in the south during these important years. Find information and site, at least three sources, either on the Internet or in books for each person you research. Seek common factors in their lives that seem to foreshadow their activism in the struggle for rights long denied blacks in the south. Write an essay on the common characteristics that you find.
3. Create a well-researched timeline of specific incidents in which you calculate the changes in the South between 1963, the year of Medgar Evers’ birth, and 1989, the year that de la Beckwith was finally found guilty of murder. Write a conclusion that suggests the importance of these years in terms of changing Mississippi to a state in which Medgar Evers’ widow and family would receive justice.
See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
BRIDGES TO READING
Ghosts of Mississippi by Maryanne Vollers; The Ghosts of Medgar Evers by Willie Morris (Random House, New York, 1998) (This book, written by a native Mississippian, who was involved in the film, describes the process by which the film was made and defends its historical accuracy.); For Us, the Living by Myrlie Evers-Williams; Watch Me Fly by Myrlie Evers-Williams with Melinda Blau (Little Brown & Co. 1999); Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case, by Bobby DeLaughter (Scribners, 2001). For a transcript of prosecutor DeLaughter’s closing argument, see Ladies & Gentlemen of the Jury: Greatest Closing Arguments in Modern Law, (Lief, Caldwell & Bycel, editors, Scribner 1998). We have read only The Ghosts of Medgar Evers which we heartily recommend.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- For Internet articles about Prosecutor DeLaughter, see University of Mississippi Law Center News/Article on Speech by Bobby Delaughter.
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- The Ghosts of Medgar Evers by Willie Morris (Random House, New York, 1998.