JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Reed Massengill had a bit of an edge when he gained special insight into the mind and heart of White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for a book on the killer of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers — he was his Beckwith’s nephew by marriage.
Massengill, who earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination after the original 1994 publication of “Portrait of a Racist: The Real Life of Byron De La Beckwith,” spoke about the book and his experience writing it during a Tuesday visit to the Johnson City Noon Rotary Club.
Massengill, a former University of Tennessee classmate of Rotary member Steve Darden, is completing his third updated ending for the book to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Evers’s death. Beckwith killed Evers on June 12, 1963, shooting him in the back with a .30-caliber rifle when Evers arrived at his Jackson, Miss. home late that night, hours after a televised Civil Rights speech by President John F. Kennedy.
Massengill provided a detailed description of how he met Beckwith and the three years he spent researching and writing the book. During that time, Beckwith was re-tried and convicted of murder based on new evidence, three decades after two all-white juries acquitted him in 1964.
Massengill concluded by telling his audience that what drove Beckwith to a White supremacist ideology hasn’t disappeared from American society.
“This is written as a biography of a man who committed a hideous, heinous act and it tries to explain his evolution, development over his lifetime,” he said. “What turned him this way? What hardened him to make him the man that he became?
“And what I tried to do with the new ending is not just show how the effects of that third trial reflected in popular culture, but how we see percolating today the same issues, the same problems, the same theologies.
“Everything is still here. The names have changed to protect the guilty, but we’re still fighting against much of what Civil Rights activists of the 1960s were fighting against 60 years ago.”
Letter from an accused killer
Massengill first encountered his “uncle” after Byron De La Beckwith VII, Massengill’s cousin, learned there was a writer in the family and told his father. Beckwith’s first wife, the former Mary Louise Williams, was Massengill’s aunt.
A budding journalist, Massengill moved to Atlanta after graduating from UT.
“I got a letter from an accused killer in the mail,” he said. “He was looking for someone to help write his life story, and although I was not the right person at that time to do that job, he found an outlet in me through which he could ship racist pamphlets, send me White supremacist literature, send me taped Christian identity sermons. We had a very odd, very lengthy correspondence for six or seven years.”
Eventually, Massengill began writing and researching “Portrait of A Racist,” relying on the voluminous information the publicity-hungry Beckwith sent him, including about 30 pounds of FBI files on Beckwith.
“That’s really when my book sort of began in earnest,” he said of receiving the FBI files. “He loaded the gun that I then fired against him in many ways. The FBI files gave me a lot of information.”
As fate would have it, Massengill was conducting his research around the time that prosecutors were deciding to take another shot at convicting Beckwith. Juries were much different than in pre-voting rights days, and with a jury that included five black women, Beckwith was convicted and spent the remainder of his life in prison.
While he was in prison, the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” was released starring James Woods as Beckwith. Woods, who said he used “Portrait of a Racist” to help develop the character, received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his work in the 1997 film.
That prompted the second edition of the book that had been nominated for a Pulitzer in the biography category in 1994, when Massengill was in his early 30s.
Delusions of grandeur?
Though he found plenty to condemn in Beckwith’s life and choices, Massengill told News Channel 11 he also managed to gain some empathy for him during all the research.
“I think I came to understand the humanity of him that was separate from his racism. I saw in him a man who aspired to greater things for himself and his family, who believed that he was from a fancy lineage when he really wasn’t. I think he had delusions of grandeur.”
He said Beckwith was “a joiner with aspirations of being elite” throughout his life. He was involved in toxic organizations like the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan, but also civic organizations like the Shriners. Whatever the group, Beckwith wanted to be out front, Massengill said.
“He wanted to be a mouthpiece, he wanted to write letters to the editor, he wanted to be the name on the document,” he said. Beckwith even ran for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi and gained 30,000 votes, but that put him next to last in the polling.
Massengill said much of what he sees happening today around race and culture leaves him deeply discouraged, concerned and even agitated at times — things readers of “Portrait of a Racist’s” third edition may read more about.
“There exists now, in a new millennium, exactly the problems we had 60 years ago, that are being treated in much the same way, by much the same populace and I don’t see peace in our future as a people anytime soon,” he said.