James Charles Evers (born September 11, 1922) is a prominent American civil rights advocate. The older brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Charles Evers is a leading civil rights spokesman within the Republican Party in his native Mississippi. In 1969 he became the first African American since the Reconstruction era elected as mayor in a Mississippi city, Fayette. He ran for governor in 1971 and the United States Senate in 1978, both times as an independent.
Early life and education
During World War II, Charles and Medgar Evers both served in the U.S. Army. Charles fell in love with a Filipino woman overseas. He could not marry her and go to his native Mississippi because of her “white” skin color. Mississippi had enshrined Jim Crow rules in its constitution, which prohibited interracial marriages.
In Mississippi about 1951, Charles and Medgar Evers grew interested in African freedom movements. They were interested in Jomo Kenyatta and the rise of the Kikuyu tribal resistance to colonialism in Kenya, known as the “Mau-Mau” Rebellion as it moved to open violence. Along with his brother, Charles became active in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights organization that also promoted self-help and business ownership. He drew inspiration from Dr. T.R.M. Howard, the president of the RCNL, who was one of the wealthiest blacks in the state. Between 1952 and 1955, Evers often spoke at the RCNL’s annual conferences in Mound Bayou on such issues as voting rights.
Around 1956, Evers’s entrepreneurial gifts and his civil rights activism landed him in trouble in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He left town and moved to Chicago. There, he vowed to support the movement back home, and fell into a life of hustling, running numbers for the Mob, and managing prostitutes. The money he made was said to have been substantial, and much of it was sent back to help the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1963, Byron De La Beckwith shot Medgar Evers as he arrived home from work. Evers died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Charles Evers was shocked and deeply upset by news of his brother’s death. Over the opposition of more establishment figures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) like Roy Wilkins, Charles took over Medgar’s post as head of the NAACP in Mississippi.
In 1969, Charles Evers was elected mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, the first African-American mayor in his state since Reconstruction. By then, Fayette had a majority of black residents, but African Americans had been effectively disfranchised in Mississippi from 1890 to 1965 and passage of the Voting Rights Act. Fayette had no industry, which meant it had almost no residents who had grown up outside the area. Its white community was known to be hostile towards black people.
Evers’ election as mayor had enormous symbolic significance statewide and national resonance. The NAACP named Evers the 1969 Man of the Year. John Updike mentioned Evers in his popular novel Rabbit Redux. Evers popularized the slogan, “Hands that picked cotton can now pick the mayor.”
Evers served many terms as mayor of Fayette. Admired by some, he alienated others with his inflexible stands on various town issues. Evers did not like to share or delegate power. The political rival who finally defeated Evers in a mayoral election used the slogan: “We’ve seen what Fayette can do for one man. Now let’s see what one man can do for Fayette.”
In 1971 Evers ran but was defeated in the gubernatorial general election by Democrat William “Bill” Waller, 601,222 (77 percent) to 172,762 (22.1 percent); Waller had been the original prosecutor of Byron De La Beckwith. In 1978, Evers ran for the Senate seat vacated by James O. Eastland. He finished in third place behind his opponents, Democrat Maurice Dantin and Republican Thad Cochran, but he received 24 percent of the vote. Cochran won the election and still holds the Senate seat.
Evers attracted controversy for his support of judicial nominee Charles W. Pickering, a fellow Republican, who was nominated by President Bush for a seat on the US Court of Appeals. Evers criticized the NAACP and other organizations for opposing Pickering despite what he claimed was a record of supporting the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
Evers has befriended a range of people from sharecroppers to presidents. He was an informal advisor to politicians as diverse as Lyndon B. Johnson, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy. On the other hand, Evers has severely criticized black leaders who, he believes, are charlatans or have not “paid the price”. Charles Evers has been highly critical of such black community leaders as Roy Wilkins, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and Louis Farrakhan.
Evers’ autobiography is titled Have No Fear.
- Charles Evers and Andrew Szanton, Have No Fear, Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story (1998 book)
- Beito, David and Linda (2009). Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 9780252034206.
- Dittmer, John (1994). Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0252021029. .
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995 book).