“In the Klan structure, where Code One called for a crossburning, Code Two a whipping, and Code Three an arson attack, the extreme penalty was Code Four — death.”
In 1963, the civil rights activist Medgar Evans was killed by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council. De La Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 by all-white juries, both of which result in hung juries; not until 1994 was he found guilty, less than two decades ago. In Bill Clinton’s run for office, coming as he did from Alabama, he placed an overt emphasis on racial reconciliation, and his decisions affect politics today. In a way that many of us not from the American South may struggle to appreciate, taking civil rights for granted, the strife of the 1960s continues to leave scars on the region.
Assassins opens with the story of De La Beckwith’s third trial. Curtis Wilkie was one of the original Boys on the Bus, the group of journalists following the 1972 election between Nixon and McGovern. Since then, he has become known as one of the best journalists covering the American South, particularly his home state of Mississippi. In Assassins, he takes a selection of his articles from various years and subjects and uses them to paint a broader picture: of the American South, of Israel/Palestine (where he lived for a time), of Carter and (Bill) Clinton, both of whom he knew personally, and even of a gubernatorial race between a playboy and a Ku Klux Klan leader in Lousiana and a lesbian colony in Mississippi.
Wilkie has spent his life covering these issues, and it shows. The book is insightful and entertaining. For those of us who didn’t grow up in the American South, it’s also enlightening. Readers may know about Freedom Summer, when college students from across the US came to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote, but reading of the multiple murders of activists and the trials paints a striking picture of the South that seems almost unthinkable now, only two generations later. For readers with little knowledge of the subject, but an interest in understanding what the South was like at the time, well worth a read.
Disclosure: I read Assassins as an advance reader copy.