Paul Saltzman ran into Byron (Delay) de la Beckwith Jr. in 1965 on the steps of a county courthouse in Greenwood, Miss.
It was not an amiable meeting.
De la Beckwith, accompanied by a bunch of rowdies, punched Saltzman in the head after asking him his name. Spinning from the blow to his left temple, Saltzman fell to one knee, but managed to escape.
Five years ago, after a 42-year hiatus, Saltzman met de la Beckwith once again. This time, he oozed old school Southern charm. “Good to see you again, pal,” he said, laughing and grinning.
If you’re wondering what accounts for de la Beckwith’s startling transformation, tune in to Saltzman’s film, The Last White Knight, which was premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and is scheduled to be broadcast by the Super Channel next February.
Saltzman, a Toronto-based movie and television producer and director, made the move to determine whether reconciliation between himself and de la Beckwith was achievable.
“I wanted to explore whether former enemies whose views are diametrically opposed can actually make peace with each other without aggression and violence,” he explained. “My goal was neither to blame him, nor to judge him. And it was certainly not to change him.”
The Last White Knight, screened 50 years after the University of Mississippi was racially integrated by the admission of African-American student James Meredith, unfolds against the backdrop of turmoil and racism in that southern state and features interviews with, among others, the imperial wizard of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Saltzman, named after the African American singer Paul Robeson, joined the struggle for equal rights in America in the summer of 1965, when civil rights workers like himself went south to challenge institutional segregation and Jim Crow laws in voter registration drives.
The single event that galvanized Saltzman was the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964. The threesome, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in league with local law enforcement officers.
Saltzman, then a university student, was deeply affected by the search for and discovery of their bodies. “I was aghast and wanted to help,” he recalled. “I wanted to do my small part to help right the wrongs of preventing people from voting because of the colour of their skin. So the next summer, I headed south. My parents were afraid for me, but they were also proud of me.”
Shortly after arriving in Mississippi, a bastion of the confederacy where he would spend three months, he was arrested and imprisoned for 10 days in Jackson, the state capital. He shared a cell with 15 white civil rights workers, 12 of whom were Jewish.
“At that moment, I discarded my own prejudices,” he said, explaining that he had internalized biased views about black people from childhood friends.
Upon being released from jail, Saltzman was assigned to Greenwood, a town in the Mississippi Delta and a centre of the civil rights movement. No sooner had he arrived in Greenwood than he was assaulted by de la Beckwith, whose father was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, a founder of the White Citizens Council – whose objective was to stop the tide of desegregation in the southern states – and the man ultimately convicted of murdering Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi, in 1963.
After Saltzman was punched by de la Beckwith, FBI agents advised him to leave Greenwood. He then worked for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in three other Mississippi towns: Sidon, Vicksburg and Biloxi.
In The Last White Knight, de la Beckwith says he hit Saltzman because he was trying to have “a little fun” and let him know that he and fellow travellers were not welcome in Greenwood. “They were infringing on our territory,” he says.
Saltzman interviewed de la Beckwith during five trips to Mississippi, to which he began returning in 2006, around the time he decided to make Prom Night in Mississippi, his first film about the state.
He found de la Beckwith friendly yet largely unrepentant. Still a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he expects to be one until he dies. Describing it as “a fine Christian organization,” he admits he participated in African-American church burnings and attacks on Freedom Riders.
As the film proceeds, de la Beckwith calls Saltzman a “nigger lover” and claims that “Jews control all the money and the media.”
Implying he is not antisemitic, he says that he is on good terms with local Jews, that he likes Saltzman and considers him a friend, and that he is annoyed only by the “others,” Jews whom he refrains from identifying.
In passing, he observes that African-Americans are not as advanced as whites and claims that U.S. President Barack Obama is a Muslim and a “direct descendant of the devil” who will destroy the United States “if we leave him in power.”
Claiming he does not hate African-Americans and has since mellowed, de la Beckwith says his ideas were formed when he was a youth. Acknowledging he may be misguided, he admits he is “the last of my kind,” disclosing his children do not share his views.
Although he lambastes Saltzman’s 1960s civil rights activities, he says their friendship, supposedly embedded in respect and understanding, is an example of reconciliation.
“He and I have reached a place of reconciliation,” Saltzman said, adding he considers him a “warm acquaintance” rather than a friend.
“What I like about Delay is his courage to change,” said Saltzman. “His courage to vote for some black politicians. His courage to see that Evers was right in what he was doing. I also like that he was willing to admit that maybe his idea of Jews controlling the money and the media is wrong.”
Saltzman suspects that de la Beckwith, hunted by his past and perhaps haunted by his future, may pay dearly for his candour and willingness to change. “He may catch a lot of flack back home for such thoughts and beliefs,” said Saltzman, noting that he has yet to see his film.
“If there is a message in my film, it’s that non-violent communication is possible, even between former enemies. It’s possible to coexist peacefully, even with extreme differences.”
The South has changed dramatically since his altercation with de la Beckwith 47 years ago, he said. “It’s better in terms of race relations, but it still has a way to go to become a pluralistic society.”
Having made two films about Mississippi, Saltzman may now grasp what native son and novelist William Faulkner meant when he once said, “To understand the world, one must first understand a place like Mississippi.”