Day 181. Extraordinary Reunion

In 1965 a white, Jewish, twenty-one year old living in Toronto was sitting, in his family home, watching the news on television.  What he saw so moved him, so civilrightsdisgusted him, he was compelled to go to Greenwood, Mississippi.  To help.  To do something.  To get involved.  To join the fight for equal rights. To be part of the Civil Rights Movement.

To help black residents register to vote.

The twenty-one year old Canadian was Paul Saltzman; and, while on his way into a Greenwood courthouse, he was stopped, and chased, by three white youths.  Even though he ran for his life, they caught up with him.  One slugged him, knocking him to the ground.  In hindsight he was very lucky.  They might just as easily have shot him to death.

His assailant’s name is Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith.  Mean anything to you?

Probably should if you’re from the South.  Or black.  Or an activist.  Or an American.  Or an American history buff.  His father, a white supremacist and Klansman, was convicted, in 1994, of assassinating Medgar Evers.  Whose widow, incidentally, delivered the inauguration prayer this past January, as Barack Obama took the oath of office, for the second time.

More than forty years later, for the first time since the incident, the two men met again, at the invitation of Saltzman, who is now a documentary film maker.  This film, his film, The Last White Knight, is primarily a conversation between the two.  With some history and interviews with Evers’ surviving family, Harry Belefonte, Morgan Freeman and a few others, including three current members of the Klu Klux Klan, thrown in.

It was riveting for several reasons I’ll get into in a minute, but mostly because of the circumstances under which I was watching it:  Mere weeks after the second term inauguration of American’s first black President.  At a time when the critical issue of gun control in the United States. is on everyone’s mind and everyone’s lips.  An issue which isn’t going to slip quietly into the night, this time.

I have goose bumps all over again,  just thinking about it, as I sit here.

This isn’t a ‘slick’ movie.  A Hollywood production.  It’s a documentary; and a rough one at that.  There’s a lot of edits which, at first, was quite disturbing.  But, as the Director, who was there to answer questions after the film was over, explained, a lot of Beckwith’s answers were way too long and unfocussed.  But trust me, you forget the jumpiness very quickly.

What struck me the most was the civility between the two men.  The meetings were not confrontational.  They were not emotional.  There was no shouting.  There was no threatening.  No ‘hatred’.  No bravado.  It was certainly NOT what you would have expected.  They could have been two former classmates, meeting again after a very long time.  And this, in itself, was surreal.  For the most part, what they had were a series of cordial, rational, surprisingly honest conversations.  And, dare I say, ‘respectful’??

Mind blowing.  Truly.

De La Beckwith’s candor was also unexpected.  He admitted he carries a handgun, at all times.  He actually pulled it out from the waistband of his pants, and held it up for all to see.  But he wasn’t bragging about it.  It was a simple, matter of fact answer to a question he was asked by Saltzman.  He admitted, just as quietly, to his ongoing loyalty to the Klan.  But equally honestly, he admitted he now believes Medgar Evers was right to fight his fight; and, he even votes for blacks in local elections.

As I sat there, in the theatre, I found myself with very conflicted feelings.  I hate everything this man stands for.  I always have.  I always will.  And yet, I had to respect his willingness to be there, to have the conversation, to be filmed.  I had to respect his openness.  He didn’t shy away from anything.  He never hid his eyes.  He gave thoughtful answers to every question he was asked.  And, in the end, he shook Paul Saltzman’s hand and told him he was glad they’d had the chance to re-connect.

And me?  I was guilty about these feelings I had.  Until Paul Saltzman took Byran De La Beckwith’s hand and told him, he liked him.  They’ll never be friends.  That would be impossible.  But they were able to put differences aside, talk to each other, and listen to each other.

Couldn’t the world use a lot more of that right now?

23 thoughts on “Day 181. Extraordinary Reunion

  1. Wow – I would definitely like to see that film. I understand that ambivalence you talk about – it’s hard to see caricatures of racism and hatred become human, even if they’re still despicable in their beliefs and criminal in their behavior. Demonizing each other puts us farther away from constructive change more than anything else.

    • It is an amazing, amazing movie. The director said it has been turned down by more film festivals than it has been accepted at, unfortunately so it will probably never be widely-released.

      A subject most are still unwilling to get involved in. A mistake as far as I am concerned.

      You may find it on dvd one day, though. Or available by download through the Internet.

      Definitely worth seeing. It is very powerful. It does exactly what the arts should do: it stretches your boundaries, makes you uncomfortable and makes you think.

  2. Oh, they certainly could use alot more of that. My Dad grew up in that south, and I know that dichotomy is prevalent to this day in the south. Anyone who thinks race relations in the southern U.S. is merely about Black vs. White is naive. He once said to me, “you Canadians just think you know ALL about it, well let me tell you, you know that lunch counter you learned about in school? That happened right down the road from me.” He was trying to get me to understand that it is not so simple. My great Grandma raised my Dad from the age of 9. This was in rural North Carolina. GGrandma’s best friend was a black woman…society said Grandma could not visit with her in the house. Can you imagine? This woman is your best friend and you can’t invite her inside your house? Society said that…and to live and prosper many had to bite their tongue and go about their lives. My Dad helped me to see that stopping prejudice doesn’t just happen via marches on Washington, it also happens quietly with two woman sitting on the front porch together.

    • Oh, they also hated Jews. that was discussed a lot in the film too. Living here it is so difficult to imagine what went on there — and, as you say, continues to go on to this day. Even if it is ‘quieter’. The 3 KKK guys he spoke to gave me the creeps. And so did the conversation he had with Beckwith about Obama. That was the only time he really sounded demented. It terrified me, brcause it made me realize the unthinkable is entirely possible.

      • The KKK is suppose to exist up here too. I can’t watch shows that have them on…I know exactly what you mean…they make me want to throw things at the TV. I can’t watch Schindlers list…I’ve watched the Simon Wiesenthal story though, couple of times. I like that he caught some of the b@stards.

      • I always force myself to watch. I remember when Schindler’s List first came out. I didn’t want to see it either and eventually I caved. And was glad I had. I just think we have to acknowledge the ugliness the human race is capable of, if for no other reason, than to honour those who suffered at the hands of it.

      • Definitely. I will watch it someday. These are things I want my nieces to understand…so that hopefully they won’t see it repeated in their life times.

  3. Wow, could you imagine how each of them felt. So steadfast in their beliefs but willing to speak with the other on such a strong topic, amazing. Back then they ay ave tried to kill each other given the chance to meet. Thank you for this post it was a reminder how far man has come but how much farther we have to go.

    • It was mind blowing to be sure. I am SO glad I had a chance to see it. And you’re right of course. Amazing and thrilling to see how far we come. Sad and frightening and tiring to see how far we have to go.

  4. That’s fascinating. I don’t understand much about the Klan, other than they are white supremacists, and wear odd looking hats. That’s perhaps exceedingly ignorant of me, I’m not even sure if they’re in the UK.
    Obviously there’ll be those who agree with their ideals, but I don’t know if the Klan is specifically American or not.
    This film sounds like something I’d very much like to see. It sounds very thought provoking.

    • White supremacists definitely exist outside of the US. And I know they can be found in Europe. Whether or not you have them in the UK I don’t know. Important to know they don’t all wear the KKK garb. The film is very thought provoking. If you get the chance I highly recommend it.

    • It was strange, but very interesting. Quite remarkable. I am very glad I had a chance to see it. Definitely the kind of film that sparks a lot of discussion.

  5. How did you find out about this, Fransi? If there is an organization in TO that is sponsoring evenings such as this one, I would be interested in knowing about it. And yes, the world could use a lot more of this. Immediately. It’s long overdue.

    • A friend of mine gets emails from the Bloor Cinema, which is now the permanent home of Hot Docs. They get amazing movies. They offer a membership. Very reasonable and very well worth it. They don’t always have guest speakers, but they do a fair number of times. You can check them out online.

  6. It always amazes me how we can hate and admire someone at the same time. It says something about both of them that they can talk cordially to one another and I seriously doubt I could be in the same room with this man without being angry so I guess this is something everyone should learn from. No matter what your point of view it is always in the best interest of everyone to talk calmly and give each other a chance to explain themselves.

  7. Another insightful post Fransi – your days must consist of 48 hours as you seem to pack so much into each of them – always a delight to open up this post in the mornings to read what’s on offer.

  8. Pingback: Day 196. Finally Returned | Three Hundred Sixty-Five

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