The Last White Night
On August 1, 1975, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the assassination of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963.
In 1961, 21-year-old Paul Saltzman was headed to the courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, as part of a campaign to help register black voters for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He was punched in the face by de la Beckwith’s son, Delay De La Beckwith. He ran for his life.
Now a documentary filmmaker, Saltzman chronicles a five-year dialogue with the man who assaulted him in the mesmerizing The Last White Knight. The racism still alive in the hearts of de la Beckwith and his ilk stands in stark contrast to conventional notions of progress and the spread of enlightened understanding. Saltzman lets his subject freely express himself, asking him the kinds of questions that are rarely put to men of such irredeemable prejudice. It is sobering to hear de la Beckwith speak his mind, his Southern charm and presumed friendship at the service of expressing opinions so loathsome they seem to come from another age altogether.
The director also places the civil rights movement into perspective, reviewing its history by way of the voices of such accomplished black activists as Harry Belafonte, Morgan Freeman, and other lesser known participants. The deeply embedded racism and anti-Semitic convictions of the old South were very real dangers to these workers. The White Knights of the Klan particularly abhorred the liberal celebrities. The possible complicity of the FBI in the violence is even hinted at. In a jaw-dropping moment, one Southern lawyer defends the murder of Medgar Evers by calling it a kind of advocacy: “Self-defense is defense of the American way of life. The highest patriotism, the Bible says, is one who lays down his life for his friends. . . . I think it’s safe to say, we want an all American America. We want the un-Americans out. The people who can’t become part.” And de la Beckwith: “I have not changed my attitude, my views, or my thinking one bit. It’s still the same way it was in 1965.” But hang on for the movie’s conclusion.
Beyond airing shockingly backward, deeply embedded attitudes about racial superiority, The Last White Knight raises the possibility of progress and presents intimations of reconciliation. Throughout, Saltzman remains even-handed no matter how disgusting the bigotry on display; the waves of anger at what we are hearing eventually give way to frustration, then resignation, and finally a bittersweet and disconcerting sadness that comes with the realization that ignorance is still being profoundly nurtured in family, religion, and Southern history. We are still generations from acting on a basic tenet of American life—that all men are created equal.