Although activists had hoped that criminal trials would prompt a national reckoning with the extent and nature of civil rights-era violence, the legal process did not generate this kind of reckoning. While trials proved meaningful to relatives, the contemporary prosecutions easily became part of a narrative of racial progress and redemption that served as evidence that the United States was colorblind and that racism had been overcome, despite the fact that racial divides remain huge and race still so clearly structures much of American life.
Few whites who violently resisted the civil rights struggle were charged with crimes in the 1950s and 60s. But since 1994, when a Mississippi jury convicted Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, there have been intense efforts to reopen, prosecute, and bring attention to civil rights era murder cases that were largely ignored at the time they took place. This lecture explores the forces that drove the legal system to revisit these decades-old murders, what happened in the courtroom when they came before a jury, how trials have been represented in the media and popular culture, and to what extent they have contributed to a public reckoning with America’s history of racial violence.