When the Devil plays God

Byron De La Beckwith the younger

By Alan Bean

“The devil will sometimes play the part of God and let things happen.”  Byron De La Beckwith Jr.

The Jackson Clarion Ledger has published two articles stemming from an interview with Byron De La Beckwith Jr.  Byron II claims his father didn’t kill civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June of 1963. 

He said those behind Evers’ assassination belonged to the Citizens’ Council, which produced television shows in which “experts” declared that African-Americans were genetically inferior. He would not share the names of the men involved. He said they later joined the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, believed to be responsible for at least 10 killings in the 1960s.

 Jerry Mitchell reports that the FBI will be looking into De La Beckwith’s assertions, but I doubt new facts will emerge.  De La Beckwith, like his daddy, enjoys the limelight and intends to make the most of it.

More interesting, from my perspective, is Byron the Second’s description of his personal contribution to 1960s anti-civil rights terrorism and his sad reflections on the current status of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan.  

He says that the Citizen Council boys who planned the murder of Medgar Evers joined the Klan shortly thereafter.  Most of these men have gone on to glory.  (I’m not sure how they are dealing with heaven’s strict integration policy, but we’ll understand all of that better by and by.)  De La Beckwith Jr. says the trigger man is still alive, but his fuzzy description of the killer inclines me to believe he’s talking through the mouthhole of his pointy white sheet.

When I think of Byron De La Beckwith I see the face of James Wood, the man who played “old Dee Lay” in the 1996 film The Ghosts of Mississippi.  Wood’s Beckwith was a slimy combination of racist malevolence and Deep South piety, a portrait that appears to be near the mark.  De La Beckwith Junior claims he was bound and determined to follow the old man into the Klan, but Senior counseled him to take it to the Lord in prayer.

Asked if he carried through with his intention to don the white hood, Byron Jr. answers cryptically: “Once you take the oath of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of the sovereign state of Mississippi, you die with it. Same with the Marines. Once a Marine, always a Marine.”

Where, exactly, is Christian discipleship located on this map of allegiances?  Does it rate above being a Klansman and a Marine, or does it run a distant third?  Can the question even be asked?  In the mind of De La Beckwith Junior and Senior, the Klan, the Marines, white supremacy and Christianity are all part of one indistinct muddle.

In his groundbreaking Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf points to Abraham as the model of biblical faith.  “The courage to break his cultural and familial ties and abandon the gods of his ancestors out of allegiance to a God of all families and all cultures was the original Abrahamic revolution . . .”  Therefore, “The ultimate allegiance of those whose father is Abraham can be only to the God of  ‘all families of the earth,’ not to any particular country, culture, or family with their local deities.  The oneness of God implies God’s universality, and universality entails transcendence with respect to any given culture.”

Men like Byron De La Beckwith Senior and Junior are too deeply mired in the miserable pieties of the Jim Crow South to break free of the old ways even when political correctness demands a casual nod in the direction of human equality. 

Junior dispels any notion that he is a changed man. 

Consider this charming amble down memory lane:

In the summer of 1964, the younger Beckwith joined many other white students in a “youth Klan” to stop Lefleur Theater in Greenwood, owned by Paramount Pictures, from integrating.

He said he got on the roof of the service station and shot out the theater’s windows with his pellet gun. “As fast as they’d put glass in, I’d take it out,” he said.

African Americans who bought movie tickets were met at the door or in the lobby by white teenagers, he said. “They would throw Cokes on them, insult them, form little lines and say, ‘You’re not going through here.'”

Some black patrons got hit in the back of the head, he said, and one left the theater bleeding.

“We’re going to close your picture show,” he said he told the manager.

And that is exactly what happened. “They leveled it for a parking lot it was losing so much money.”

I wonder what a young Doug Evans was up to in 1964 when the LeFleur Theatre was being run out of business?   Evans is the Granada District Attorney who has taken Curtis Flowers to trial on six separate occasions.  In 1966, Evans’ hometown was paralyzed for the better part of a year as black students risked the mob to attend white schools and black voters attempted to register at the courthouse. 

Did Evans ever free his feet from the quicksand of white supremacy?  If so, why did he serve as a keynote speaker for the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization created in 1985 out of old white Citizens’ Council mailing lists?  After Trent Lott’s affiliation with the CCC sparked a national scandal in 1992, politicians like Evans were less inclined to flaunt their public support for white supremacy. 

But what Damascus Road encounter rescued Doug Evans from the muck of cultural conformity between 1992, the last year his association with the CCC can be documented, and 1996, the year he took over the prosecution of Curtis Flowers in Winona?

The Junior De La Beckwith comes off like a dim echo of his daddy’s proud and fervent racism.  Times have changed.  If Junior has it right, several high status politicians in Mississippi are clandestine Klansmen scared to death that word will get out.  The Klan, by Junior’s frank admission, is a faint shadow of its former glory.  Political correctness can’t change our hearts, but it has effectively scattered the white-hot coals of white supremacy.  It takes a village to create a racist like Byron De La Beckwith (Jr. or Sr.) and that kind of cultural solidarity has been dead in Mississippi for decades.

Junior is every bit the racist his daddy was, but the swagger is gone.  De La Beckwith Senior was supported by a dominant white culture that wore its racism like a badge of honor; Junior inhabits a world where men check out the company before launching into a tirade of intolerance.  Senior’s world celebrated and cultivated racism; Junior’s world merely tolerates it.

It’s even getting hard for Junior to picture Jesus in a white hood.  His daddy was all about taking things to the Lord in prayer, Junior recalls, but it wasn’t that simple.  “Not that God lets you do these things. The devil will sometimes play the part of God and let things happen.”

To what “things” is Junior referring?  Trashing the LeFleur theatre?  Shooting Medgar Evers in his driveway?  Beating Annell Ponder and Fannie Lou Hamer half to death in a Winona jailhouse?

You can imagine Junior’s spiritual confusion.  He wants to be a white supremacist and a child of God.  He grew up in a culture that taught him he could be both. Then the culture changed its mind, or at least lost its conviction.  Few will say in public that the civil rights activists were dead right and the white majority was dead wrong.  Mistakes were made . . .  on both sides, you understand.  It was a complicated time; Yankees wouldn’t understand.    We were really standing up for state’s rights and free enterprise; the race thing was just an expendable sideline. 

The air has gone out of the balloon, but the balloon remains. 

Which explains why Governor Hailey Barbour had to release the Scott sisters as a cost-saving measure (Jamie’s dialysis was costing Mississippi $100,00o.00 a year).  Hailey couldn’t appear to be caving in to pressure from the civil rights community, or suggest he was acting in the interest of justice.  

In our colorblind age, only true believers like Byron De La Beckwith Sr. qualify as real racists; even wistful Klansmen like De La Beckwith Junior are cut some slack.  You can tell the man’s heart ain’t in it no more.  Men like DA Doug Evans and women like state senator Lydia Chassaniol maintain their respectable credentials.  Sure, Miss Lydia is a card-carrying member of the comically racist Council of Conservative Citizens, but the CCC raises money for segregationist academies, and that’s a good thing, right? 

Do most white public officials in Mississippi subscribe to white supremacy?  Likely not.  But those who do escape censure; their occasional misstatements are generally ignored.  There are simply too many people in the South still slogging through the muck of racial resentment for the mainstream press to point fingers.  Journalists and preachers have no civil rights consensus to appeal to.  By default, therefore, white supremacy is acceptable so long as folks aren’t too gross about it. 

Are we even talking about white supremacy anymore?   If racism (in its strong form) is defined as white supremacy, the term doesn’t really describe men like De La Beckwith Junior.  Racial resentment may be a better descriptor of Junior’s generation and the generations that have followed.

African Americans are resented for two simple reasons.  First, a zero-sum analysis of economic reality suggests that more for the black man means less for the white.  Hence the resentment sparked by the policy of affirmative action.

But white racial resentment cuts far deeper than this.  Most white Americans do not resent most black Americans; we resent the civil rights movement.  Why?  Because the civil rights movement drenched the myth of American exceptionalism in the blood of the martyrs.  The civil rights movement placed white Americans in a cruel bind.  We couldn’t embrace the principles of equality and exclusion without admitting that American history is a building built on a foundation of inequality and exclusion. 

White America (including large chunks of the “progressive movement”) has been willing to embrace civil rights as an ideal so long as we can define the term without reference to history.  That is, we want to celebrate the inclusive virtues of the civil rights movement without reflecting on what came before and how what came before maintains its existence half a century later.

Unfortunately, white America can’t have its inclusive cake and eat it too.  The mere existence of poor black people living in jobless neighborhoods with crummy schools is enough to make most white Americans apoplectic.  If we feel the denizens of this social world resent us white folks for forcing them into their social straitjacket, we seethe with rage.  How dare “those people” with their high crime rates, their drug dealers, welfare mothers, deadbeat dads and street gangs question the morality of mainstream white America or lecture us about our moral failings.

It is this sense of outrage that drives social policy.  We begin with a denial that we white folk have any responsibility (not one iota) for the plight of poor black America.  But that isn’t enough.  In order to justify ourselves we are driven to focus compulsively on the moral failings of notorious black people, as individuals, and “black ghetto culture” as a whole.  When black opinion leaders like Bill Cosby join the outcry, our sense of righteousness is reinforced.

We aren’t anti-black, you understand.  That would make us racists, and racism is bad.  We are simply “racial realists” who call it as it is.

But we don’t just call it as it is; we exaggerate, we fixate, we celebrate, we luxuriate the perception of poor black social pathology.  Because it’s all their own damn fault, any attempt by well-meaning liberals to improve the lot of ghetto folk will only make things worse. 

This virulent species of white racial resentment propelled Reagan Republicans to the zenith of political power.  Free Market ideology held a deep appeal for resentful white people because it freed us from all responsibility.  So long as we admit that Jim Crow segregation was a bad thing we can drive by an inner city slum on the interstate and sigh, “those people are their own worse enemies.  Why spend a nickel on that neighborhood when they won’t help themselves.”

To be honest, Democrats exploited white Southern racism in their drive to sell the New Deal.  Just read Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White and you will see what I mean.  In fact, the civil rights era can be seen as a transitional period during which the exploitation of white racism transferred from the Democrats to the Republicans.  For a brief moment it appeared that America was going for LBJ’s Great Society.  Not so.  It simply took a decade for the amazing power of white resentment to morph from full-bodied white supremacy (largely a Southern phenomenon) into white racial resentment (a national reality).

Democrats told Southern racists that the New Deal would honor the principles of States Rights and local control if the South signed on to the New Deal.  A generation later, Southern Strategy Republicans promised resentful white folks nationwide that their racial animus would be honored, assuaged and disguised by the Darwinian tenets of free market fundamentalism. 

Either way, the Devil was more than willing to don the flowing white garments of God, Jesus or the Ku Klux Klan.  If we’ll buy the charade; the Devil will play his part.

Chances are that De La Beckwith Senior was a New Dealer while Junior is a small government Republican.

You can’t get at these realities with statistical studies and opinion surveys.  The numbers show that grotesquely disproportionate numbers of black and Latino males are locked up across America; but the numbers can’t explain why.  It takes a narrative to cut to the heart of social reality (should you be so inclined).

We all appeal to some kind of narrative.  Sarah Palin and her Tea Party friends subscribe to a free market fundamentalism overlaid with a thin veneer of Christianity and American exceptionalism.  White racial resentment dovetails beautifully with this Good America narrative.  We aren’t perfect, but we’re well on our way to perfection.  Therefore, if you can’t find a safe place in our exceptional America it’s on you 100%.

You can’t argue with a narrative–especially one that covers white racial resentment in the flowing vesture of God Almighty.  The only effective response is to provide an alternative narrative. 

Unfortunately, the American Left is fresh out of stories.  We can drown you in numbers, studies and rational discourse, but if you’re looking for a compelling national narrative . . . sorry, we don’t do that.

This explains why Friends of Justice works with narrative.  Wrap yourself in the Curtis Flowers narrative (or Tulia, or Jena) and everything begins to make sense.  Follow the career arc of Doug Evans and Lydia Chassaniol from old Jim Crow childhood to new Jim Crow adulthood; ask yourself if the kind of intimidation Fannie Lou Hamer stared down in 1963 Winona is that radically different from the fear the witnesses in the Flowers case are dealing with.  Trace the downward trajectory of Curtis Flowers’ employment history after high school and you will understand what made him so vulnerable to prosecutorial tunnel vision.

Then stand back and watch how the good people of Winona (like the good people of Tulia and Jena) wrap themselves in the reflexive narrative of free market, post-racial American exceptionalism, a narrative where all the pieces fit, the good folks go to church and the bad folks go to prison.

Properly interpreted, the Flowers story (or any other story rooted in the realities of the criminal justice system) isn’t about  a town called Winona, a state named Mississippi, a region known as the South; it’s a story about America, an alternative vision challenging the regnant narrative on which mass incarceration is built. 

When these two narratives interact the sparks fly; they call it cognitive dissonance.  Gradually, for some, the puzzle pieces begin to click together.   And suddenly it’s obvious:  That ain’t God in that white beard and gleaming white robe; it’s the very Devil himself!

One thought on “When the Devil plays God

Comments are closed.