Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

By June of 1963, at the age of thirty-seven, Medgar Evers was a hardened veteran in the fight for Civil Rights. Growing up in Decatur, Mississippi, he couldn’t help but be aware of race and how blacks and whites were treated differently. He had a close childhood friend who was white, and watched as they grew distant as they grew up. iii At about 14, Evers witnessed Willie Tingle, a black man accused of insulting a white woman, being dragged behind a wagon through the streets of Decatur. Tingle was eventually shot and hanged. As Evers walked to school every day, he would pass Tingle’s bloody clothes where they were left near the tree where he was hanged. ii Evers left high school early to enlist in the army during World War II. He served in the European Theatre and received an honorable discharge. When he returned at age twenty-one, Medgar Evers and his brother Charles successfully registered to vote, but on Election Day, when they actually tried to vote, they were turned away by angry whites. ii

Evers attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), which at the time offered both high school and college courses. Evers finished the high school education that was interrupted by his military service, and began college courses in business administration. ii In his senior year, he married fellow student Myrlie Beasley; the couple had three children: Darrell, Reena, and James. After graduation, Evers was hired by prominent black businessman T.R.M. Howard to sell insurance. As he traveled Mississippi attempting to sell insurance to other blacks, he saw their plight and listened to their stories of life under Jim Crow. iv His own experiences, and those of his fellow black Mississippians, inspired Evers to begin participating in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. He began volunteering with the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter. His insurance sales supervisor and mentor, T.R.M. Howard, was president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization, and Evers also became active in the RCNL, organizing boycotts of gas stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms.

In 1954, Evers volunteered to become the first black applicant to the segregated University of Mississippi Law School but was denied admission on a technicality. ii He failed to reverse that decision, but his efforts led E.J. Stringer, the NAACP’s Mississippi State Conference leader, to offer him a job as the organization’s first field secretary in the state of Mississippi. i

Medgar Evers moved with his family to the state capital of Jackson and opened an office where, within three years, he doubled NAACP membership in Mississippi to 15,000. i One of his first assignments was investigating the murder of Emmett Till, a young black man, just fourteen years old, who, after being accused of flirting with a white woman, was kidnapped by a group of white men and brutally beaten, shot, and his body dumped in a river. The murder, trial, and subsequent acquittal of the accused became a watershed event in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Years after his own failed attempt to gain admittance to Ole Miss, Evers eventually became instrumental in its desegregation when he and other NAACP members accompanied James Meredith when he attempted to register for classes. The ensuing race riot killed two people, caused President Kennedy to deploy 30,000 National Guardsmen to restore order, and focused enough national attention on the University that the administration was forced to relent and allow Meredith’s admission. i

Evers traveled all over Mississippi recruiting new members to the NAACP, organizing voter registration events, and leading demonstrations and boycotts of businesses that discriminated against blacks. While not yet a nationally known figure, his tireless efforts and high-profile cases made him the most prominent civil rights activist in the state of Mississippi.

Medgar Evers fully realized the dangers of his cause. Violence against blacks in general was common enough, but Civil Rights workers and activists engendered a particularly fierce enmity among white supremacists and those opposed to desegregation. Evers was so aware of potential violence, that he made modifications to the design of his new house in Jackson that would make it harder to attack. iv

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and Evers’ prominence in the state rose, it didn’t take long for the trouble that hatred brings to find Evers and his family. Threats on his life increased, becoming common. On May 28, 1963, a firebomb was thrown into the carport of his home. A week and a half later, he was injured as a car tried to run him down as he left his NAACP office in Jackson. On June 11, President Kennedy gave his landmark Civil Rights speech, outlining reforms that would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Myrlie Evers watched the speech at the house with their children while Medgar met with NAACP attorneys at a meeting at a local church. Shortly after midnight the family heard him drive up to the house. They heard him get out of his car, but he didn’t immediately come in, so they returned to watching TV. Then they heard a single shot. The children threw themselves to the floor and started crawling toward the bathroom to get into the bathtub for safety. The kids had reached the bathroom, with Myrlie close behind when she heard a loud thump, like someone had thrown something against the house. That sound made Myrlie Evers jump up from the floor and bolt to the carport entrance door. As she ran to the door, she heard two more shots coming from the opposite direction. When she opened the door, she saw Evers staggering between their cars, trying to get to the door where she stood. She said that she knew she would lose him that night, because half his chest was missing. iii

An assassin had taken up position in a vacant lot across the street, and shot Evers with a high powered deer rifle after he got out of his car. Evers was carrying NAACP T-shirts that said “Jim Crow Must Go”. i The bullet struck Evers below the right shoulder and passed through his chest. The two shots Myrlie Evers heard as she ran for the door were her next-door neighbor, Houston Wells, returning fire. He said he didn’t know who or what he was shooting at, he just wanted to scare them out of there. Wells rushed to Evers’ aid and he and Myrlie got him inside. Evers kept trying to say something, but they couldn’t understand him. Police arrived and escorted Wells as he rushed Evers to the nearest hospital, where there was some debate over treating a black man. They did eventually treat him, but Evers died about forty-five minutes after reaching the hospital. iii

Evers’ murder spurred demonstrations in Jackson. The murder and sometimes violent demonstrations gained national attention. On June 19, Evers was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in front of more than 3,000 mourners. A Police and FBI investigation quickly identified a prime suspect. On June 23, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman, founding member of the White Citizen’s Council, and Ku Klux Klansman, was arrested for Evers’ murder.

Beckwith received support from some of Mississippi’s most prominent white citizens. Then-governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker both visited Beckwith during the trial. Under these circumstances, and with an all-white jury, it’s not surprising that Beckwith was acquitted when the trial ended in a deadlocked jury. His retrial later the same year also ended in a deadlock of the all-white jury. i

Beckwith went on to run for Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi. His bid failed, but he felt secure enough in his position in life that he reportedly bragged about his involvement in the murder. That arrogance was misplaced though, and it was that arrogance that eventually brought Beckwith to justice. For decades after the trials, Myrlie Evers-Williams (Medgar’s wife had remarried) and others, including a Jackson newspaper, continued their own investigations, finding new evidence and witnesses that Beckwith had boasted to. In December of 1990 Byron De La Beckwith was indicted for a third time on charges of murdering Medgar Evers. Beckwith appealed the indictment several times, but in April of 1993, the Mississippi State Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of a new trial. Testimony began in February of 1994 before a mixed race jury of eight blacks and four whites. At the conclusion of the third trial, and after three decades of freedom, Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in January 2001 at the age of 80. ii

Evers’ death was one of the tragic catalysts that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marking the legal death of Jim Crow. In 1970, Medgar Evers College was established by the City University of New York. In 1983 the story of Evers’ life was told in the made-for-television movie For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story. In 1992 Jackson, Mississippi erected a statue in his honor, and the 1996 major motion picture The Ghosts of Mississippi tells the story of the third trial. In 2009, the U.S. Navy named one of their vessels after Evers. i

After Evers’ death, the NAACP appointed his brother, Charles, to his position. Charles Evers went on to become a major political figure Mississippi; in 1969, he was elected the mayor of Fayette, becoming the first black mayor of a racially mixed Southern town since the Reconstruction. Myrlie Evers became a noted Civil Rights activist in her own right, being elected as chairperson of the Board of Directors of the NAACP, and founding the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson. She delivered the invocation at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. i

But Medgar Evers’ life itself is perhaps his most enduring legacy: the people he helped and the lives he helped make better in his everyday work as a Civil Rights activist. He worked for us all. His courage and commitment in the face of certain violent reprisal should be inspiration to us all.

Michael Maxson
Docent
Jim Crow Museum 2015

References

i “NAACP HISTORY: MEDGAR EVERS”. naacp.org. Accessed on 11 February, 2015 http://www.naacp.org/pages/naacp-history-medgar-evers

ii “Medgar Evers and the Origin of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi”. Davis, Dernoral, Ph.D. Accessed on April 1, 2015 http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/53/medgar-evers-and-the-origin-of-the-civil-rights-movement-in-mississippi

iii Watson, Minnie; Curator, Medgar Evers House Museum. 2009. “Medgar Evers – Assassination”. Online video clip. History.com. Accessed 11 February, 2015 http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/medgar-evers

iv Watson, Minnie; Curator, Medgar Evers House Museum. 28 April 2014. “Medgar Evers House”. Online video clip. C-span.org. Accessed on 10 February, 2015. http://www.c-span.org/video/?319880-1/medgar-evers-house