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Arkansas Senate candidate dismissed from high school over KKK costume, records show

by John Moritz | October 22, 2020 at 12:26 p.m.
Charles Beckham (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Charles Edward Beckham III, a Republican who is running for the Arkansas Senate, was dismissed from a Mississippi high school he attended 20 years ago for dressing up in Ku Klux Klan regalia during a school-sponsored Halloween event, according to court records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The story of Beckham having worn the Klan outfit was first reported earlier this week by the Arkansas Times, which spoke to five of Beckham’s former classmates at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.

When asked about the Arkansas Times report on Tuesday, Beckham not only denied the allegations but assailed the people making them.

“First of all, I unequivocally denounce the KKK and any like minded hate group,” Beckham said in an email to a Democrat-Gazette reporter. “It is sad that the Democrats will do anything and say anything to try to win. The accusations that have been made about me are not only baseless and false, but disgusting.”

On Wednesday, however, the Hinds County Circuit Court in Jackson provided records from a lawsuit Beckham’s family filed after he was dismissed from the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science over the incident involving the Ku Klux Klan outfit. The records largely corroborate the Times’ story.

The Democrat-Gazette also spoke with three of Beckham’s former classmates — including one quoted in the Times’ story — who said they witnessed the incident at MSMS, a residential high school for gifted students in Columbus, Miss.

According to both the court records and the former students, the incident occurred in October 2000, during Beckham’s senior year at MSMS.

[DOCUMENT: Mississippi Board of Education order »]

Beckham, who was known as “Bubba” at the time, originally wore camouflage pants and a white T-shirt with fake blood on it for a Halloween costume contest hosted by the school, according to an order produced by the Mississippi State Board of Education, which was later included in the court record.

After the costume contest, however, Beckham and two other students changed into Klan regalia to go trick-or-treating, according to the order.

“The costumes consisted of white bed sheets that were sewn into the form of robes with a patch on the chest area and pillowcases that were cut into hoods,” the order stated. “The costumes were worn to school-sponsored Halloween activities that consisted of 'trick or treating' in the girls’ dormitory.”

Bronwen Haskel, who was a senior in the same class as Beckham, recalled this week that the outfits looked more realistic than something put together by teenagers at the last minute.

“They weren’t sheets, they looked to me to be real robes,” said Haskel, who is white. “I remember seeing a Black classmate and the look of pain on his face.”

Another senior at MSMS that year, Eric Seymour, recalled that school policy at the time largely forbid students from mingling in the dormitories of the opposite sex, but on Halloween, the rules were relaxed so that students could trick-or-treat around campus. That gave Beckham “unprecedented access” to the girls’ dorm, where Seymour said he remembers seeing Beckham wearing the Klan outfit as well as Black students who were “terrified in the moment.”

“This was not just a prank, this was something that was very insidious and intentional,” said Seymour, who is also white.

The order produced by the Mississippi State Board of Education also corroborates the students’ recollections that their classmates were distressed by the costumes. It states that two students testified at the time they were upset over the incident, so much that it caused “crying, shaking and even fearing for their safety.”

Told Thursday that the Democrat-Gazette had obtained court records confirming the incident, Beckham repeated in an emailed statement that the allegations were “baseless and false,” but then conceded to making “mistakes” as a teenager.

“I do sincerely apologize for any angst or grievances that I have caused anyone as a minor, as that is not the man that I am today” Beckham said. “I continue to unequivocally denounce the KKK and any like minded hate groups and the rumors that I am or have ever been part of the KKK are absolutely ridiculous. I am a Christian, a husband to my loving wife of 8 years as well as a father of two and am proud of the life that we have built in McNeil, Arkansas.”

According to the records, Beckham and the two other classmates wearing the KKK outfits were caught by school staff and immediately given three days of in-school suspension. After further review, the school’s director dismissed Beckham, a decision that was upheld by the Mississippi Board of Education.

The records do not say what eventually happened to the two other students involved, but Beckham’s classmates said they recalled those students returning to the school a short time later.

Beckham’s family filed a notice of appeal of the board’s decision to the Hinds County Circuit Court in January 2001, however records from the court indicate that the family did not pursue the case much further, as no formal complaint was filed.

A response from the Mississippi Board of Education to the lawsuit details the family’s arguments during the administrative appeal of his dismissal.

“Bubba further contends that there was no physical or emotional harm caused by his actions,” the order states. “There were several students testifying on behalf of Bubba that stated the costume worn by Bubba was in poor taste or immature, but they felt it was nothing more than a costume.”

Ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed by Circuit Judge W. Swan Yerger in November 2001.

Other records from the lawsuit state that Beckham returned home to Pascagoula, Miss. to complete high school. Beckham told the Democrat-Gazette last month that he graduated from Pascagoula High School before attending Mississippi State University.

Beckham, now 37, is locked in a tightly-contested campaign against state Sen. Bruce Maloch, D- Magnolia, to represent state Senate District 12 in South Arkansas.

Sen. Maloch could not be reached for comment early Thursday.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.


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