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 disgusted 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?