This week in terrorism history: Sept. 26-Oct. 2

White supremacist terrorist Byron De La Beckwith (Credit: Associated Press)

This week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States is an excellent example of the some of the trends that we continue to see when it comes to political violence in America. One that I want to highlight here is radicalization and terrorism linked to current and former members of the US military.

An April 2021 report produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shines a spotlight on military and law enforcement involvement in domestic terrorism. As the report points out:

Individuals with a military or law enforcement background have skills that extremists want – such as proficiency in firing weapons, building explosive devices, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, training personnel, practicing operational security, and performing other types of activities.

As with so much when it comes to terrorism in America, this is nothing new. For example, in 2008 white supremacist leaders were reported to be aggressively working to recruit active-duty members of the military and recent combat veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several years earlier, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups were encouraging their members to enlist in the US military for the explicit purpose of acquiring the skills they would need to wage war at home. In the mid 1980s the US military realized it had a problem with far right radicalization in the combat arms of both the US Army and Marine Corps, and sought to purge the ranks of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

This is a phenomenon I’ve written about before in this space. Several times.

For example, Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who in 2012 murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page, a committed white supremacist, was killed by a local police officer, ending his rampage at the temple.

Or Army and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including 19 children. He was sentenced to death and in June 2001 was executed by lethal injection. McVeigh’s was the single deadliest act of terrorism in American history prior to 9/11, and remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism we’ve ever experienced.

Or active-duty Coast Guard officer Christoper Hasson, who was accused by federal prosecutors of plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” in order to trigger a white nationalist revolution. He pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges and is currently serving time in federal prison.

This brings us to the perpetrator of one of the historical terrorist incidents highlighted this week, Byron De La Beckwith, who in 1963 assassinated NAACP and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Like the terrorists mentioned above, De La Beckwith was also a veteran of the US military.

In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and subsequently served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater in World War II. He fought in the brutal battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa, where he was wounded. He was honorably discharged at the war’s end.

De La Beckwith eventually returned home to Mississippi, and 1954 plunged into white supremacist activism in response to the Supreme Court’s order ending racial segregation in public schools. He joined his local White Citizens’ Council, a racist organization founded to fight desegregation which at its peak boasted more than 60,000 members, and then the Ku Klux Klan.

The state of Mississippi twice in 1964 tried De La Beckwith for the murder of Evers. Both trials ending in hung juries. In the years after his unsuccessful prosecutions De La Beckwith went on to identify with a movement called the Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, which claims that those of white Anglo-Saxon and Nordic blood are the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus are the real descendants of the Israelites, making them, not Jews, God’s chosen people.

He was finally convicted of Evers’ assassination in 1994 and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying of heart disease and other ailments in January 2001. But before his conviction and imprisonment, De La Beckwith continued to participate in white supremacist activism and terrorism. As we see below.

  • Sept. 26, 1973 – New Orleans: De La Beckwith is stopped and arrested at a police checkpoint on Interstate 10 as he was driving across a bridge into New Orleans. In his car was a ticking time bomb, firearms, and a map with highlighted directions to the home of A.I. Botnick, the head of the New Orleans-based B’nai B’rith Anti Defamation League. De La Beckwith had been under surveillance for several days after informants tipped the FBI that he was plotting to assassinate Botnick in retaliation for statements Botnick had made about white Southerners and race relations. In 1975 De La Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the case but was subsequently paroled in 1980.
  • Sept. 28, 1973 – New York City: The Weather Underground claims responsibility for the bombing of the offices of International Telephone and Telegraph’s Latin American operations. In a call to the offices of The New York Times 20 minutes before the blast, the caller identified himself as the Weather Underground and said the bomb would go off in retaliation for I.T.T. “crimes they committed against Chile.” I.T.T., a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate was widely viewed by Weather and other leftist groups as a symbol of United States exploitation of Latin America.