Who Killed Medgar Evers?
In his early song “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Bob Dylan argues that there are some people whom we shouldn't judge from a moral perspective. Being “pawns,” they're incapable of moral choice—not the authors of their actions, but mere tools of others' agendas. Dylan makes this point in expressing a kind of contempt for Byron de la Beckwith, the white Southerner who fired the bullet that killed NAACP organizer Medgar Evers. Dylan would have us believe that even though Beckwith is “the one / That fired the gun”—his hand, eyes, and brain mere extensions of the bullet and handle—Beckwith “can't be blamed.” Rather, there's a murder mystery here—who killed Medgar Evers? And rather than accuse Beckwith, Dylan appears to deny that Beckwith can be blamed.
Dylan's argument for denying Beckwith's agency in the killing is that the “poor white man” in the South is manipulated into race hatred by divide-and-rule tactics, his whiteness a cheap and easy “psychological wage” that keeps his anger directed away from his rulers and toward his black neighbors.1
1 Pem Buck argues forcefully for a position like this in Worked to the Bone:
Race, Class, Power, and Privilege in Kentucky (New York: Monthly Review
Press, 2002). Mike Marqusee points out that Beckwith wasn't actually poor, so
he wouldn't count as a pawn by Dylan's reasoning. The point, of course,
stands for the general case, and I'll follow Dylan in using Beckwith as an
example despite the incorrect application. See Mike Marqusee, Chimes of
Freedom (New York: The New Press, 2003), p. 77.