To expand the topic a little more, I should point out that blacks were not the only group that suffered at the hands of the lynch mob in the United States. The reborn Ku Klux Klan also conducted acts of violence against Catholics and persons of other nationalities, specifically immigrants such Italians. As for reasons that his prosecution took so long? From what I understand of the case, he was only a suspect and never indicted. This could be for a lack of evidence to charge him with the crime. It could also very well be that the grand jury refused to indict due to racial motives. Blacks had a very hard time getting placed on juries in the years from 1900-1970. Many jurisdictions systematically selected white jurors over blacks who were equally qualified to serve.
One reason that the prosecution may not have been possible at the time may have to do with the FBI's clandestine operations at the time. They were attempting to monitor the situation by inflitrating the Klan with informers. This information was used to collect information on the Klan's criminal activities and was intended for use in major prosecutions that would bring convictions that would destroy the core leadership. Most of the informers were Klansmen who had become disillusioned with the group or had moral changes of heart. Being a federal informant was a courageous effort on the part of these men-being found out could and did get people killed. Bearing that in mind, the FBI and the prosecutors chose their fights carefully. In the case of the Medgar Evers murder, one of the FBI infomants had information that would see Byron DeLa Beckwith sent to prison for the remainder of his life in the late 1990s. However, at the time of the murder his testimony was needed for a trial that was deemed to be of greater importance. Thus he was used for that trial and the Evers case remained open for forty more years.
Another reason for the importance of prosecuting these cases now is to send a message to those who are involved in hate groups today. Just because you are not immediately caught does not mean that you will escape punishment. Bobby Frank Cherry and Byron DeLa Beckwith though they had beaten the system. DeLa Beckwith died in a Mississippi State Prison and Cherry now calls an Alabama prison home. In both cases, new evidence surfaced and they were convicted by a jury of their peers for crimes that were committed over four decades ago. The key message to the hate groups is that the government is watching you and will take whatever steps necessary to enforce the laws with equal justice.
Finally, groups such as the Klan are still of great concern due to our knowledge of their past. As an undergraduate, I did a term research project on the history of the Ku Klux Klan. This group, unlike most others, has demonstrated a worrying ability to reorganize and regroup to meet new conditions. They were originally shut down by the anti-Klan laws passed by Congress in the 1870s. They lay virtually dormant until the 1920s as a national organization. Reborn, their membership counted over one million by the mid-1920s and included a majority of the powerbrokers on Capitol Hill. The Civil Rights Act and the rigid enforcement of the anti-Klan laws in the Civil Rights era helped to weaken the Klan once again. However, while the Klan may be dormant for now there is always the risk that given the right conditions, they can possibly rise again. There's a reason they are referred to as the Invisible Empire.
[Edited 2005-06-22 13:21:38]
"When a man runs on railroads over half of his lifetime he is fit for nothing else-and at times he don't know that."