Civility replaces violence in ‘Last White Night’

May 22, 2013

In June 1965, during the most violent days of the civil rights movement, 21-year-old Paul Saltzman drove from Toronto to Mississippi to become a freedom fighter with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Just a year before, Klansmen from Neshoba County, Miss., had assassinated the young activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and the year before that, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his Mississippi home.

Within hours of arriving in the Delta, Saltzman — a Canadian Jew whose uncles were prominent union activists in the 1930s — was arrested while participating in a peaceful protest and jailed for 10 days. And several weeks after his release, he found himself on the wrong side of a Klansman’s fist while trying to attend a meeting of the White Citizens Council at the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood.

Saltzman was about halfway up the front walk when Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith Jr. — a Klansman whose father was later convicted of murdering Evers — surrounded him with a group of three friends. “Hey, buddy, where do you think you’re going?” he asked Saltzman. 

“I got really frightened; I must have been radiating fear,” Saltzman, now 69, recalls in his documentary “The Last White Knight: Is Reconciliation Possible?” which revolves around his conversations with De La Beckwith four decades after their altercation and will screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 4 and 5.

The next thing he knew, there was a blur and De La Beckwith suddenly hit his temple, hard. “I went down on one knee, and as soon as I hit the ground I was running,” he says in the documentary.  All sound stopped, and I could hear the sound of my heart pounding … but within five seconds I was across the lawn … and I knew I was safe.”

Even so, Saltzman continued working to help register blacks to vote for about two months — even after De La Beckwith was acquitted of charges of assaulting him.

Saltzman went on to take pictures of the Beatles while studying meditation with the band in an ashram in Rishikesh, India, in the late 1960s and eventually founded what would become the third-largest TV and film production company in Canada. 

By 1992, he had left the business to focus on becoming a single parent (his former wife is the acclaimed Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta) and to publish books of his Beatles photographs. 

He had no intention of making another movie when he received a telephone call in 2006 from a Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter who wanted to interview a former civil rights worker. The call got Saltzman wondering about how Mississippi had changed over the years, as well as what had happened to De La Beckwith. He telephoned the Klansman, who agreed to get together with him.

In an interview with the Journal from his retirement home, De La Beckwith said he wanted to meet with Saltzman because, while unrepentant about “popping” him, he was curious about what had befallen his old nemesis. 

And so, the two men reunited in front of the courthouse where their violent confrontation had occurred 43 years earlier; the scene was tense, as De La Beckwith grabbed Saltzman’s arm as if to prevent the Jewish Canadian from hitting him. Even so, the air soon cleared, and Saltzman went on to speak with De La Beckwith for many hours over the next five years, often with cameras rolling. Their frank but genial conversations became the centerpiece of “The Last White Knight.”

In the film, De La Beckwith exudes Southern charm, even as he describes joining the Klan at 14, participating in the burning of churches, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting out the windows of cars to deter civil rights workers. Of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, he says, “They got what they deserved.”

And yet, De La Beckwith also insists that he has mellowed, that he no longer participates in violent activities and that he has even supported black political candidates. When he suggests that Jews control world finances, Saltzman’s calm and respectful correction actually changes his mind, on camera.

In between these conversations, the documentary also captures reminiscences of actor Morgan Freeman, who was born in and now lives in Mississippi, as well as those of the singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who recounts how he and Sidney Poitier were once chased (and their car rammed) by Klansmen. A retired Jewish businessman describes how his community formed an armed guard after the bombing of their synagogue and their rabbi’s home, and three current Klan leaders spout racist ideology while refusing to remove their hoods.

But the heart of the film is the peaceful reconciliation between Saltzman and De La Beckwith, who politely agree to disagree about their differences.

“Delay opened up to me because I wasn’t there to judge him,” Saltzman said in an interview from his home outside Toronto. “I wasn’t there to change him or to make him wrong. I was there to try to understand who he was and how he thought back then and now, as one human being to another.”

Some media reviewers and at least one film festival programmer have criticized Saltzman for “going easy” on De La Beckwith or providing a platform for his racist views. But Saltzman said those critics are missing the point: “The purpose of the film is not to give Delay a platform, but to explore nonviolent communication. I’m a great admirer of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And I’m really excited that the film brings up for viewers their own prejudices, attitudes and beliefs.”

Saltzman’s family has endured its own share of violent prejudice. In 1923, his grandfather was shot to death in front of Saltzman’s then-8-year-old mother during a pogrom in their Ukrainian village; thereafter, the girl, her family and Jewish neighbors were lined up in front of a firing squad before Bolsheviks raced to their rescue.

Saltzman said that it was his parents’ instruction to “do unto others” that, in part, spurred his own activism; during his return to the south, Saltzman spent his life savings of $1.5 million to make not only “The Last White Knight” but also another documentary, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” chronicling the first desegregated prom ever held at a high school in Charleston, Miss.

“The Last White Knight” will screen on June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and on June 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. Following the screening will be a Q-and-A session with Saltzman as well as Los Angeles Urban League President Nolan V. Rollins and Anti-Defamation League Regional Board Chair Seth M. Gerber, moderated by Naomi Pfefferman. For tickets and information about the festival, visit http://lajfilmfest.org or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/e/385222.

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