Medgar Evers, Civil Rights Activist, NAACP   Leave a comment


Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist from Mississippi involved in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi. He became active in the civil rights movement after returning from overseas service in World War II and completing secondary education; he became a field secretary for the NAACP.

Evers was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council. As a veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.[2][3] His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests, as well as numerous works of art, music, and film.

  Life

Medgar Evers was born July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, the son of Jesse and her husband, James Evers; they owned a small farm and he also worked at a sawmill. Evers was the third of five children, after Charles and Elizabeth. His sister Ruth was the youngest.[4] The family also included Eva Lee and Gene, Jesse’s children from a prior marriage. After the lynchings of family friends, Evers became determined to get the education he deserved. He walked 12 miles to and from school to earn his high school diploma.[5]

In 1943 Evers and his older brother Charlie were inducted into the army after the US entered World War II.[6] Evers fought in the European Theatre of WWII, including in France. He was honorably discharged in 1945 as a Sergeant. In 1946, he, along with his brother and four friends, returned to his hometown.

In 1948 he enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), a historically black college, majoring in business administration. In college, he was on the debate team, played football and ran track, sang in the school choir, and served as president of his junior class. He was listed in Who’s Who in American Colleges based on his many accomplishments.[7]

He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on December 24, 1951, and received his BA degree the following year. They had three children together, two boys and a girl. In 2001, their oldest son, Darrell Kenyatta Evers, died of colon cancer[8]. Their two surviving children are Reena Denise and James Van Evers.

  Activism

The couple moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where T. R. M. Howard had hired Evers as a salesman for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Howard was also the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and self-help organization. Participation in the RCNL gave Evers crucial training in activism. He helped to organize the RCNL’s boycott of service stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed bumper stickers with the slogan “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom.” Along with his brother, Charles Evers, Medgar also attended the RCNL’s annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954, which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.[9]

Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was rejected, Evers filed a lawsuit against the university, and became the focus of an NAACP campaign to desegregate the school. The case was strengthened by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 347 U.S. 483 that segregation was unconstitutional. That same year, due to his involvement, the NAACP’s National Office suggested Evers become Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP.

  NAACP field secretary

On November 24, 1954, Evers was appointed Mississippi’s first field secretary. President of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference and civil rights activist, E.J. Stringer, helped him gain this position.[4] Evers was involved in a boycott campaign against white merchants. He was instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi by mentoring James Meredith through his attempt to enroll, succeeding in 1962.

Segregationist protesters collected at the campus, where they rioted after Meredith was admitted. Two people died, and hundreds were wounded, and the federal government sent in the National Guard and regular troops to restore order.

Evers’ civil rights leadership and investigative work made him a target of white supremacists. In the weeks leading up to his death, the hostility directed towards him grew. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard had made him a prominent black leader. On May 28, 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home. On June 7 1963, Evers was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.

  Assassination

In the early morning of June 12, 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy‘s speech on national television in support of civil rights, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go,” Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from an Enfield 1917 rifle; it ricocheted into his home. He staggered 9 meters (30 feet) before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later.[10]

The driveway where Medgar Evers was shot.

Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors in front of a crowd of more than 3000 people.

Medgar Evers’ grave in Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens’ Council (and later of the Ku Klux Klan), was arrested for Evers’ murder.

District Attorney and future Governor Bill Waller prosecuted De La Beckwith.[11] Juries composed solely of white men twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith’s guilt.

In 1994, 30 years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, De La Beckwith was brought to trial based on new evidence. Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as the prosecutor. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy.[3] De La Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for much of the three decades following the killing (though he was imprisoned on an unrelated charge from 1977 to 1980). De La Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died at age 80 in prison in January 2001.

 Legacy

Evers’ legacy has been kept alive in a variety of ways. The writer Minrose Gwin notes that after his death, Evers was memorialized by leading Mississippi and national authors, both black and white: Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Margaret Walker and Anne Moody.[12] In 1969, Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York as part of the City University of New York. In 1983, a made-for-television movie, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story starring Howard Rollins, Jr. and Irene Cara as Medgar and Myrlie Evers aired on PBS, celebrating the life and career of Medgar Evers. On June 28, 1992, the city of Jackson, Mississippi erected a statue in honor of Evers. All of Delta Drive (part of U.S. Highway 49) in Jackson was renamed in Evers’ honor. In December 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the city’s airport to Jackson-Evers International Airport in honor of him.

Evers’s widow, Myrlie, became a noted activist in her own right later in life, eventually serving as chair of the NAACP.[13] Medgar’s brother Charles returned to Jackson in July 1963 and served briefly in his slain brother’s place. Charles Evers remained involved in Mississippi civil rights activities for years to come. He resides in Jackson.

40 years to the day after Evers’ assassination, hundreds of civil rights veterans, government officials, and students from across the country gathered around his grave site at Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate his life and legacy. Barry Bradford and three students—Sharmistha Dev, Jajah Wu and Debra Siegel, formerly of Adlai E. Stevenson High School (located in Lincolnshire, northwest of Chicago)—planned and hosted the commemoration in his honor.[14] Evers was the subject of the students’ research project.[15]

In October 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former Mississippi governor, announced that USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13), a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship, would be named in the activist’s honor. [16] The ship was christened by Myrlie Evers-Williams on November 12, 2011.[17]

 In popular culture

The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar. Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963 song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” about Evers and his assassin. Nina Simone wrote and sang “Mississippi Goddam“. Phil Ochs wrote the songs, “Too Many Martyrs” and “Another Country,” in response to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the haunting “Ballad of Medgar Evers.” Eudora Welty’s short story “Where is the Voice Coming From,” in which the speaker is the imagined assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker. Rex Stout used the event as a plot device in his civil rights-themed mystery A Right to Die.

Medgar Evers’ story is the inspiration for a 1991 episode of the NBC TV series In the Heat of the Night, entitled “Sweet, Sweet Blues“, written by author William James Royce. The story tells of a 40-year-old murder of a young black man and the elderly white man, played by actor James Best, who seems to have gotten away with murder. (It preceded the trial that convicted Beckwith by several years.) In the Heat of the Night won its first NAACP Image Award for Best Dramatic Series that season.[18]

The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, directed by Rob Reiner, tells the story of the 1994 retrial of Beckwith, in which prosecutor DeLaughter of the US District Attorney’s office secured a conviction in federal court. Beckwith and DeLaughter were played by James Woods and Alec Baldwin, respectively; Whoopi Goldberg played Myrlie Evers. Evers was portrayed by James Pickens, Jr..

Robert DeLaughter wrote a first person narrative article titled “Mississippi Justice” published in Reader’s Digest, and a book Never Too Late.

Posted February 29, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Civil Rights

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