In 1965, Paul Saltzman had a violent encounter with a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Can old enemies reconcile? Saltzman returned to Mississippi to find out.
Paul Saltzman is a 69-year-old Canadian filmmaker with at least 300 movie and television credits to his name.
He has produced more than one hit television series. He has documented the Beatles spiritual journeys in Rishikesh, India, worked with John Cusack and Jeanne Moreau and has won the Emmy twice.
But in all his wanderings, through Europe and the Far East, documenting violin makers and carpet weavers, one exotic place and time stands out.
As a 21-year-old Freedom Rider in the heart of Mississippi, Saltzman was attacked outside a courtroom. His attacker was a Ku Klux Klansman, the son of one of the most notorious white supremacists of the civil rights movement.
The incident lasted only three minutes. But it haunted Saltzman like a bad dream. And it stayed with him until a chance phone call eight years ago prompted him to return to Mississippi to find his attacker. Saltzman spent the next eight years — and $400,000 of his savings — to make a movie about his experience. “The Last White Knight” has its U.S. premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on Monday night.
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The film examines how time dulls old hurts and can soften even the hardest, most hateful beliefs.
“We all know how to make the other person wrong,” says Saltzman. “But how often does that make the world a better place? How do we communicate across extreme ideological differences without aggression, without violence?”
2. A collision of ideologies
The altercation took place on a June afternoon in 1965, outside the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Miss. Saltzman, dressed in a shirt and tie, was trying to get into a meeting of the local White Citizens’ Council, a segregationist group that used boycotts, intimidation and political pressure to fight integration.
The situation was dangerous, especially for a white, Jewish man aligned with the Freedom Riders. Just the year before, Ku Klux Klansmen from Neshoba County, Miss., had executed civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and buried their bodies in an earthen dam. Indeed, the courage of Chaney,Goodman and Schwerner was partly what motivated Saltzman to risk a trip to the South.
A group of young men were gathered outside the courthouse, leaning up against a truck, and one member shouted to Saltzman, “Hey! Where are you going?”
As they hurled questions, they closed in around him, cutting off his avenue of retreat. Then a fist flew toward his face.
“I turned my head just in time, so that it hit me on the side of the head,” Saltzman remembers. “It helped me spin in the direction I needed to run. My knee barely touched the ground and then I was off.”
The young men gave chase, but Saltzman was motivated. After he’d safely escaped, he visited the local prosecutor to press charges. That’s when he found out his assailant was Byron “Delay” Beckwith Jr., son of the man who assassinated NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., the morning of June 12, 1963.
But the elder De La Beckwith wouldn’t be convicted for years and retained the support of many influential people, including former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett.
“The FBI came and interviewed me and said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” Saltzman said. “Not only are you in the Delta, not only is Beckwith well-known and his father is dangerous, but you’re never going to get a conviction.”
They were right. The judge openly criticized Saltzman and found in favor of Beckwith. As he walked out of the courtroom, Delay Beckwith grinned in Saltzman’s face.
After three months in Mississippi, Saltzman had had enough. He returned to Toronto, found a job at a television station, and his career was off and running.
But Mississippi didn’t leave him. About 40 years and hundreds of thousands of miles later, Saltzman received a call from Jerry Mitchell, a reporter at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger who was responsible for publishing the evidence that ultimately led to the elder De La Beckwith’s murder conviction in 1994. Mitchell mentioned that Saltzman’s name had cropped up in files kept by the state Sovereignty Commission, a government group that worked secretly to undermine civil rights workers.
Mitchell put Saltzman in touch with Delay Beckwith and thus began one of the oddest partnerships in the history of the civil rights movement. The Freedom Rider and the Klansman got together, 40 years after that punch-out, and talked. They talked regularly, hours at a time, for the next five years.
“Sometimes our conversation would get a little rough, then we would both grin and get our composure back,” said Beckwith.
Saltzman filmed their exchanges. He also talked to other activists from the time, including singer Harry Belafonte and Freedom Rider Jimmie Travis. He used research and archival material to create a vivid sense of the chaotic scene that was Mississippi in the 1960s.
Out of their conversations emerged a portrait of a rare breed, a man who Saltzman suggests is the last of his kind among Mississippi terror groups.
“For me the film is not about ‘Am I right and is he wrong’” Saltzman. “I truly, truly was there to discover: Who is this man today? I have great respect for him, that he had the courage to show up and just be real.”
3. A tale of two opposites
Saltzman is a lanky 5-foot-11, with the broad smile, high forehead and thinning hair of a “Kill Bill”-era David Carradine. Unlike that character, however, his commitment to pacifism runs deep. His father was a TV weatherman, and though neither parent was an observant Jew, they impressed him with deep ethical training that boiled down to the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
There were no whippings. No one sent him to the liquor store to buy whiskey on credit when he was nine years old. No one fired pistols at him when he didn’t behave.
In other words, he grew up in a different world than Delay Beckwith.
“Mine was the most unusual childhood you’ve ever seen,” says Beckwith.
Beckwith is sitting in a secluded corner of the Rebecca Baine Rigby Library in Madison, Miss., just north of Jackson, on a recent rainy January day, and he seems not only likeable, but harmless.
Beckwith is now 66, and the years have shrunk him down. His face is wrinkled, but merry, his hair snow white, his frame perhaps a little shy of the 5-foot-8 of his youth. He wears a jacket from a sponsor of his brief career as a pro bass fisherman and a Marine Corps ballcap that is emblazoned with his ribbons from his years in the service.
He is burdened with a limp, hearing aids and dentures. He grabs a corner of one of the bookshelves to rise out of his chair. It is difficult to see this gnomish senior citizen as an object of fear.
But his words are chilling. The murdered civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner “got what they deserved,” he says in “The Last White Knight.” In person, he also doesn’t mince words. Medgar Evers’ murder? “It didn’t bother me a bit,” he says, chatting quietly in a corner by the young adult books. “The man was playing on the wrong ball team.”
The library is near the assisted-living facility where Beckwith has recently moved. His expenses are paid by his Social Security income, with some financial help from his daughter. He has chosen this spot to meet a reporter because, he says, his senior center doesn’t want him conducting interviews there. That’s one of the hazards of sharing a name with one of the most hated killers of the 1960s. (Delay says his proper name is actually Byron De La Beckwith VII, and that his lineage goes back to the American Revolution.)
His growing up years were not boring. His mother, Mary Williams, fired bullets near her son’s feet when he didn’t do as told.
“I got used to it,” he says. Besides having dangerous friends, he also has enemies.
“If I had a quarter for every time I got a threatening phone call,” he says, “I wouldn’t be living in this assisted living home.” When threatened, “I used to laugh and say ‘Do you have the correct address? Do you know how to get here? ’Cause I want to be here when you get here.’”
His manner and speech portray him as an unreconstructed relic of the Old South, an image that Beckwith seems to relish. But the reality is more nuanced. Mississippi had, at one time, more black elected officials than any other state, and Beckwith claims he helped some of them get into office, not just by voting for them, but by quietly campaigning for them.
“They were the most qualified and the most honest,” he says simply. Like much of what the aging Klansman says, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in these sorts of claims.
Beckwith’s practical acceptance of a world his father fought against was one of the surprises that met Saltzman when he began their conversations, around eight years ago. Another surprise was that Beckwith would agree to meet at all.
That latter-day meeting is captured on film. As they walk down a Greenwood sidewalk toward each other, Saltzman’s jangling nerves are clearly apparent. “I was scared,” says the Canadian. “It isn’t logical. It’s cellular … The mind flashes back to being pounded in the head by this guy.”
4. No easy answers
While he was in the middle of working on “The Last White Knight,” Saltzman took time out to film “Prom Night in Mississippi,” the story of a little Mississippi town’s segregated proms, one for black students and one for white students. The film documents how those two events came together, with the help of actor and Charleston, Miss., resident Morgan Freeman. (Freeman is also interviewed in “The Last White Knight.”)
Beckwith saw “Prom Night” in 2009. He didn’t think much of it.
“I do not believe God wanted the races to marry each other and to mix,” Beckwith says. But “The Last White Knight”? Beckwith is proud of it. He occasionally refers to it as “my movie,” and is happy to talk about it. “I can’t think of too many circumstances where I wouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with Paul and fight anybody who was against our movie.”
Beckwith admits that his branch of the Klan was responsible for Medgar Evers’ death, that he himself has handed out beatings, thrown Molotov cocktails and put people in the hospital. At the same time, he seems willing to question himself.
In one memorable exchange when Beckwith blurts out a hackneyed charge that Jews control the wealth in the country, Saltzman points out that he himself is Jewish, and offers a refresher course in American finances.
Beckwith is taken aback, and later says, “I learned a lot of valuable lessons; I learned more respect for other races.”
Of Saltzman he says “he is much of a man. He must have been much of a man 40 years ago when I first met him, ’cause he was very true to his convictions.”
Later on this dreary January day, Beckwith eats chili at a Madison sandwich shop, and ridicules the contemporary Klan for its sloppy demeanor and lack of purpose. He opens a pepper shaker and pours half the contents onto his already-spicy supper. Beckwith says he split with his father over the elder Beckwith’s calls for attacks on Jews and his embrace of the white supremacist Identity church movement.
Fighting integration was a losing battle, the son concedes, and the violence of the Klan solved nothing. In the movie he avers that the murder of Medgar Evers was wrong. But that doesn’t make him disavow his father.
“Whether my daddy did it or not, I’m very proud of my daddy,” Beckwith says of his father, who died in 2001 while serving a life sentence. “God didn’t make no mistakes.”
The experience of meeting Beckwith made Saltzman do something he’s never done in one of his movies before. He put himself in it. Though he was self-conscious about it, he realized that his role in the story was important.
“The happiest result for me is how many people have said to me, ‘I don’t know what to feel here.’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ And they say ‘Well, I hate him. I hate everything he stands for, but he’s kind of charming and I kind of like him.’”
How we got the story
Artists, writers and filmmakers in the South are constantly exploring new ways to understand the civil rights movement, the region’s defining moment of the 20th century. Veteran features writer Bo Emerson became interested in filmmaker Saltzman’s story when he learned that his film about a brief moment from that era, eight years in the making, was headed to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, now under way through Feb. 20. Emerson conducted extensive interviews with Saltzman and traveled to Madison, Miss., near Jackson to interview Beckwith for the story.
About the reporter
Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a 30-year veteran at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham’s last crusade. In October, Emerson wrote a Personal Journeys feature about The Rev. Andy Stanley. He is married to Maureen Downey, who covers education for the AJC. They have four children.
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