Medgar Wiley Evers (//; July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an American civil rights activist and the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi, who was murdered by Byron De La Beckwith. Evers, a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran who had served in World War II, was engaged in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi, end the segregation of public facilities, and expand opportunities for African Americans including the enforcement of voting rights.
Medgar Wiley Evers
July 2, 1925
Decatur, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||June 12, 1963 (aged 37)|
Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
|Cause of death||Assassination by gunshot|
|Burial place||Arlington National Cemetery (with full military honors)|
|Education||Alcorn State University (BA)|
|Occupation||Civil rights activist|
|Children||3, Darrell K Evers, James V Evers, Reena D Evers|
|Relatives||Charles Evers (brother)|
|Service/||United States Army|
|Years of service||1943–1945|
A college graduate, Evers became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Following the 1954 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Evers challenged the segregation of the state-supported public University of Mississippi, applying to law school there. He also worked for voting rights, economic opportunity, access to public facilities, and other changes in the segregated society. Evers was awarded the 1963 NAACP Spingarn Medal.
Evers was murdered in 1963 at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, now the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens' Council in Jackson. This group was formed in 1954 in Mississippi to resist the integration of schools and civil rights activism. As a veteran, Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His murder and the resulting trials inspired civil rights protests, and his life and death inspired numerous works of art, music, and film. Although all-white juries failed to reach verdicts in Beckwith's first two trials in the 1960s, he was convicted in 1994 based on new evidence.
Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers, became a noted activist in her own right, serving as national chair of the NAACP. In 1969 his brother Charles became the first African American to be elected mayor of a Mississippi city in the post-Reconstruction era.
Early life Edit
Evers was born on July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi, the third of five children (including elder brother Charles Evers) of Jesse (Wright) and James Evers. The family included Jesse's two children from a previous marriage. The Evers family owned a small farm and James also worked at a sawmill. Evers and his siblings walked 12 miles (19 kilometers) a day to attend segregated schools; eventually Medgar earned his high school diploma.
Evers served in the United States Army during World War II from 1943 to 1945. He was sent to the European Theater where he participated in the Normandy landings in June 1944. After the end of the war, Evers was honorably discharged as a sergeant.
In 1948, Evers enrolled at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (a historically black college, now Alcorn State University), majoring in business administration. He also competed on the debate, football, and track teams, sang in the choir, and was junior class president. Evers earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1952.
The couple moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a town developed by African Americans, where Evers became a salesman for T. R. M. Howard's Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. He was also president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), which began to organize actions for civil rights; Evers helped organize the RCNL's boycott of gasoline stations that denied blacks the use of the stations' restrooms. He and his brother, Charles, attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954, which drew crowds of 10,000 or more.
In 1954, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Evers applied to the state-supported University of Mississippi Law School, but his application was rejected due to his race. Evers submitted his application as part of a test case by the NAACP.
On November 24, 1954, Evers was named as the NAACP's first field secretary for Mississippi. In this position, he helped organize boycotts and set up new local chapters of the NAACP. Evers was also involved with James Meredith's efforts to enroll in the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s.
Evers also encouraged Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr. in his organizing of the Biloxi wade-ins from 1959 to 1963, protests against segregation of the city's public beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Evers conducted actions to help integrate Jackson's privately owned buses and tried to integrate the public parks. Evers led voter registration drives and used boycotts to integrate Leake County schools and the Mississippi State Fair.
Evers' civil rights leadership, along with his investigative work, made him a target of white supremacists. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, local whites founded the White Citizens' Council in Mississippi, and numerous local chapters were started, to resist the integration of schools and facilities. In the weeks before Evers was killed, he encountered new levels of hostility. Evers' public investigations into the 1955 lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi, and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard, had made Evers 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 came out of the NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi.
Evers lived with the constant threat of death. A large white supremacist population and the Ku Klux Klan were present in Jackson and its suburbs. The risk was so high that before his death, Evers and his wife, Myrlie, had trained their children on what to do in case of a shooting, bombing, or other kind of attack on their lives. Evers, who was regularly followed home by at least two FBI cars and a police car, arrived at his home on the morning of his death without an escort. None of his usual protection was present, for reasons unspecified by the FBI or local police. There has been speculation that many members of the police force at the time were members of the Klan.
In the early morning of Wednesday, June 12, 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy's nationally televised Civil Rights Address, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. His family had worried for his safety that day, and Evers himself had warned his wife that he felt in greater danger than usual.
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 Eddystone Enfield 1917 rifle; the bullet passed through his heart. Initially thrown to the ground by the impact of the shot, Evers rose and staggered 30 feet (10 meters) before collapsing outside his front door. His wife, Myrlie, was the first to find him.
Evers was taken to the local hospital in Jackson, where he was initially refused entry because of his race. Evers' family explained who he was, and he was admitted; Evers died in the hospital 50 minutes later, three weeks shy of his 38th birthday.[full citation needed] Evers was the first black man to be admitted to an all-white hospital in Mississippi. Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors before a crowd of more than 3,000 people.
After Evers was assassinated, an estimated 5,000 people marched from the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street in Jackson. Allen Johnson, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders led the procession. The Mississippi police came to the non-violent protest armed with riot gear and rifles. While tensions were initially high in the stand-off between police and marchers, both in Jackson and in many similar marches around the state, leaders of the movement maintained non-violence among their followers.
On June 21, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the 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. All-white juries in February and April 1964 deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt and failed to reach a verdict. At the time, most black people were still disenfranchised by Mississippi's constitution and voter registration practices; this meant they were also excluded from juries, which were drawn from the pool of registered voters.
Myrlie Evers did not give up the fight for the conviction of her husband's killer. She waited until a new judge had been assigned in the county to take her case against De La Beckwith back into the courtroom. In 1994, De La Beckwith was prosecuted by the state based on new evidence. Bobby DeLaughter was the prosecutor. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed for an autopsy. His body was embalmed, and was in such good condition that his son was allowed to view his father's remains for the first time in 30 years.
De La Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994 and sentenced to life in prison, after having lived as a free man for much of the three decades following the killing. He had been imprisoned from 1977 to 1980 on separate charges, conspiring to murder A. I. Botnick. In 1997, De La Beckwith appealed his conviction in the Evers case but the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld it and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it. He died at the age of 80 in prison on January 21, 2001.
Evers was memorialized by leading Mississippi and national authors James Baldwin, Margaret Walker, Eudora Welty, and Anne Moody. In 1963, Evers was posthumously awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP. In 1969, Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York, as part of the City University of New York.
Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers, co-wrote the 1967 book For Us, the Living with William Peters. In 1983, a television movie was made based on the book. Celebrating Evers's life and career, it starred Howard Rollins Jr. and Irene Cara as Medgar and Myrlie Evers, airing on PBS. The film won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Adapted Drama.
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 his honor. In December 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the city's airport to Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Evers' honor.
Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers, became a noted activist in her own right, eventually serving as national chairperson of the NAACP. Myrlie also founded the Medgar Evers Institute in 1998, with the initial goal of preserving and advancing the legacy of her husband's life's work. Anticipating the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers and recognizing the international leadership role of Myrlie Evers, the Institute's board of directors changed the organization's name to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute.
Evers' brother, Charles Evers, returned to Jackson in July 1963, and served briefly with the NAACP in his slain brother's place. Charles remained involved in Mississippi civil rights activities for many years, and in 1969, was the first African-American mayor elected in the state. He died on July 22, 2020, at the age of 97.
On the 40th anniversary of 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 in Lincolnshire, Illinois—planned and hosted the commemoration in his honor. Evers was the subject of the students' research project.
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. The ship was christened by Myrlie Evers-Williams on November 12, 2011.
In June 2013, a statue of Evers was erected at his alma mater, Alcorn State University, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Evers' death. Alumni and guests from around the world gathered to recognize his contributions to American society.
Evers was also honored in a tribute at Arlington National Cemetery on the 50th anniversary of his death. Former President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Senator Roger Wicker, and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous all spoke commemorating Evers. Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, spoke of his contributions to the advancement of civil rights:
Medgar was a man who never wanted adoration, who never wanted to be in the limelight. He was a man who saw a job that needed to be done and he answered the call and the fight for freedom, dignity and justice not just for his people but all people.
In popular culture Edit
Musician Bob Dylan wrote his song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" about the assassination on July 2, 1963, on what would have been Evers' 38th birthday. Nina Simone wrote and sang "Mississippi Goddam" about the Evers case. Phil Ochs referred to Evers in the song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and wrote the songs "Another Country" and "Too Many Martyrs" (also titled "The Ballad of Medgar Evers") in response to the killing. Malvina Reynolds referenced Evers's murder in her song, "It Isn't Nice". Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers recorded a version of the latter song. Wadada Leo Smith's album Ten Freedom Summers contains a track called "Medgar Evers: A Love-Voice of a Thousand Years' Journey for Liberty and Justice". Jackson C. Frank's self-titled debut album, released in 1965, also includes a reference to Medgar Evers in the song "Don't Look Back".
Essays and books Edit
Attorney Bobby DeLaughter wrote a first-person narrative article entitled "Mississippi Justice" published in Reader's Digest about his experiences as state prosecutor in the murder trial. He added to this account in a book, Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (2001).
The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi, directed by Rob Reiner, explores the 1994 trial of De La Beckwith in which prosecutor DeLaughter of the Hinds County District Attorney's office secured a conviction in state court. Beckwith and DeLaughter were played by James Woods and Alec Baldwin, respectively, with Whoopi Goldberg as Myrlie Evers. Medgar was portrayed by James Pickens Jr. The film was based on a book of the same name.
In the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), Evers is one of three Black activists (the other two are Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X) who are the focus of reminiscences by author James Baldwin, who recounts the circumstances of and his reaction to Evers' assassination.
In the 2011 film The Help, a clip of Evers speaking for civil rights is shown on TV, quickly followed by news of his assassination, and a glimpse of an article by his widow published in Life magazine.
The 2020 documentary film "The Evers" features interviews with his surviving family members.
See also Edit
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- Eyes on the Prize; Interview with Darrell Evers, retrieved February 10, 2021
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Further reading Edit
- Gwin, Minrose (2013). Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0820335636.
- Bruce, Catherine Fleming (2019 ). The Sustainers: Being, Building and Doing Good through Activism in the Sacred Spaces of Civil Rights, Human Rights and Social Movements. Tnovsa LLC. ISBN 978-0996219068.
- SNCC Digital Gateway: Medgar Evers, Documentary website created by the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, telling the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee & grassroots organizing from the inside-out
- JFK First Draft Condolence Letter to Medgar Evers's Widow, June 12, 1963 Archived May 20, 2022, at the Wayback Machine Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Audio recording of T. R. M. Howard's eulogy at the memorial service for Medgar Evers, June 15, 1963, Jackson, Mississippi.
- Myrlie Evers (June 28, 1963). "'He said he wouldn't mind dying – if ... '". LIFE. pp. 34–47.
- Medgar Evers in the U.S. Federal Census American Civil Rights Pioneers
- "Medgar Evers biography". Africa Within. Archived from the original on February 4, 2012.
- FBI article: Civil Rights in the '60s: Justice for Medgar Evers
- Medgar Evers's FBI file hosted at the Internet Archive
- Medgar Evers Fund Collected Records held at Swarthmore College Peace Collection