Medgar Evers served his country in the U.S. Army in World War II and returned to his home state of Mississippi to do battle against discrimination and segregation.
He was recognized around the country for his efforts and hated by racists determined to keep Blacks from attaining the rights they deserved as citizens.
Early on the morning of June 12, 1963, Evers, the field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, was fatally shot in the driveway of his home in Jackson by a coward hiding in some bushes with a rifle with a telescopic lens. His wife, Myrlie, and their children, Darrell Kenyatta, Reena Denise, and James Van, had been waiting up for him to come home from an organizing meeting.
On June 5, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, NAACP Chairman Roslyn Brock, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous and others gathered at his grave at Arlington National Cemetery to honor his memory at a wreath-laying ceremony on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Evers was buried at Arlington on June 19, 1963 with full military honors as more than 3,000 loved ones and admirers watched.
“I am elated that you can get on a plane at Medgar Evers Airport and go to Medgar Evers School in Brooklyn,” Clinton said to the crowd. “There was meaning in Medgar Evers life and death. The meaning…was that he embraced the fundamental struggle.”
Jealous called Evers “a hero among heroes in the struggle for civil and human rights… fighting to expand the vote and put an end to Jim Crow even though he knew death could come at any moment.”
“Medgar Evers leaves a legacy of the utmost courage and the ultimate sacrifice,” Jealous said in a statement. “He is numbered among the great men and women upon whose broad shoulders we still stand today as we continue his work to make voting easier and fight against voter suppression. On Wednesday, we will pay tribute to the man and the ideas he stood for: equality, justice and representation for all.”
People who knew Evers said he was fearless in his fight and committed to his cause, despite living under constant threat of violence. A few weeks before he died, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his house and he was almost hit by a car that sped in his direction, according to historical accounts.
“Those of us who were very close to him have borne a lot of pain, anguish and anger over the way it happened,” said Dorie Ladner of Northwest Washington, a retired social worker who was among a group of student activists who attended a mass meeting with Evers only hours before he died. “He was doing so much and to have that happen so suddenly…That doesn’t go away.”
Lader said she and others from the Civil Rights Movement are traveling to Mississippi from points around the country on June 11 to be there on the 50th anniversary of his death on June 12.
“I am going to bear witness on the day he was murdered 50 years ago,” she said. “I thank God that I’m still alive to be able to do that.”
In the spring of 1963, Evers was on a mission to defeat Jim Crow. As the field secretary for the NAACP, he advocated for citizens who faced everything from unfair education and employment practices to voting rights violations and violence. He had conducted an investigation into the death of teenager Emmitt Till after he was murdered in 1957 in Money, Miss. He had also advised James Meredith, the student who integrated the University of Mississippi.
In late May, 1963, he energized Black citizens with an impassioned speech delivered on television in Jackson. “History has reached a turning point,” he told the television audience, according to historical accounts.
His words spurred Blacks to action. An integrated group of students made national news when they were attacked by racists during a peaceful lunch counter sit in. Jackson’s mayor and city leaders were forced to engage Evers and other Black leaders about their demands. While the negotiations moved forward, White hoodlums stepped up their attacks on Black citizens.
Young Blacks, frustrated at being refused even basic rights—like trying on clothes and shoes in stores—took to the streets in demonstrations. On June 11, Evers, Black leaders and several members of the clergy, and young activists, including Ladner, met at a church in Jackson to discuss a boycott of local businesses that discriminated. After the “mass meeting,” one of several called by Evers to address the problems, several of the participants gathered at the Elks Lodge for dinner, said Ladner, then a 19-year-old college student at Tougaloo College and member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.
“After we finished eating, we all said our goodbyes,” Ladner said. “Medgar said, ‘See you in the morning.’ I said, ‘See you in the morning.’ Everybody else said it. That’s the way we always left each other. Then, we all…and drove away, not knowing it was the last time we would see him alive.”
Ladner said friends found it doubly difficult to deal with Evers’ death when his murderer was not brought to justice. White supremacist and Klansman Byron De La Beckwith, who owned the rifle found at the scene that was determined to be the murder weapon and whose fingerprints were found on it, was allowed to go free twice after all- White juries deadlocked during murder trials. He was finally convicted in 1994 by an integrated jury and died in prison in 2001.
AFRO Intern Talib Babb contributed to this report.
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