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Wednesday, June 12, 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the first NAACP Field Secretary for Mississippi.  Commemorative events have already started.  The NAACP held a national board meeting in Jackson; replete with visits to historic sites. NAACP local chapters are holding events all over the county. Medgar’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, along with former President Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder and 300 others paid their respects at a high profile visit to Mr. Evers’ grave in Arlington National Cemetery.  And his alma mater, Alcorn State University, is dedicating a memorial to the civil rights freedom fighter, as well as having a “Torch of Justice” awards luncheon.

These events occur at a difficult juncture for civil rights advocates. More than 30 states have passed Voter I.D. laws of varying types.  While the text of such laws is aimed at curtailing voter fraud, the subtext of such laws is aimed at restricting votes by people of color.  The Supreme Court will soon pass judgment on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Law, the most important enforcement provision in the law. Many observers expect the Court to vacate that section. Daily discrimination continues against people of color in employment, housing, healthcare, and every other facet of life, even while such facts are either ignored or glossed over.  From Tea Partiers we get the contention that it is white people who are the victims of discrimination.

At this same moment, President Barack Obama’s election occasioned the highest ever levels of voting participation by African Americans.  And in Jackson, Choke Lumumba—one of the founders of the Republic of New Africa and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement—was just elected Mayor.

In this article, IREHR recounts a small piece of Medgar Evers biography.  In other pieces to come we will look at some of the other murders by white supremacists in Mississippi during that time, and analyzes the white supremacist defense of Jim Crow segregation during that period.  We do so while remembering that without the bravery and forward thinking of those who fought for justice then, we would not be having the same conversation we are having today.

Medgar Evers: A Short Bio

Medgar Wiley Evers was born into a working class family 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. He lied about his age to get into the army and served in World War II in a segregated field battalion in England and France.  After the war, he attended Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), was a good student and was entered into the Who’s Who in American Colleges.  He married fellow student Myrlie Beasley from Vicksburg in 1951.

In 1952, Evers was one of the founders of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership.  In January 1954—before the decision in Brown v Topeka Board of Education that May struck down the legal fiction of segregated schools—he applied to the University of Mississippi Law School—a whites-only institution at that time.  He was denied admission, but filed suit with the assistance of the NAACP, and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was his attorney.

In December 1954, at the age of 29, Medgar Evers was hired as Field Secretary of the NAACP.  He and Myrlie opened the NAACP office in Jackson, the same office that the NAACP operates from today. 

After the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers “dressed like a field hand,” in order to not raise suspicions, while investigating the murder and searching for potential witnesses, according to The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revisited Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable.  No one was ever convicted for any of these crimes.

As Field Secretary, Medgar Evers traveled the state, recruiting and building NAACP branches. , He focused on efforts to defeat Jim Crow segregation and secure new voter registration.  In a number of instances, he organized campaigns to pay the poll tax, so that one less hurdle stood in the way of voter registration. 

He was non-sectarian in his civil rights outlook.  He understood the importance of the anti-colonial struggle for independence in Africa.  And he named his first son, Darrell Kenyetta Evers, after Jomo Kenyetta, the father Kenyan independence.  He appreciated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and served on its national leadership team for a short period in 1957.  He supported the young SNCC workers, who were then pushing for voter education and voter registration.  He publicly defended Bob Moses, for example, when he was falsely charged with a firebombing.  And Marian Wright Edelman recently wrote about flying into Jackson and “Medgar Evers … was the first welcoming face I saw…He picked me up at …the airport, took me home to meet and have dinner with Myrlie and their children … and then drove me to …the SNCC headquarters in Greenwood.”

When mass demonstrations by students and young people against Jim Crow segregation broke out again in Jackson in early 1963, the Mayor went on television to call for an end to the protests.  Medgar Evers appealed to the FCC under the “equal time” provision and won 17 minutes to publicly make the case for integration and equal rights—a first in Mississippi history.  On May 28 speaking at a local AME church, he called for a “massive offensive against segregation.” And on June 1, 1963 Medgar and NAACP national executive secretary Roy Wilkins were arrested on a picket line at a Woolworth’s store in Jackson.

Taylor Branch recounts that set of arrests and the Rev. Martin Luther King’s response to it.  That night, the germ of the idea of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was born.

Just 11 days later, Medgar Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist coward who hid in bushes across the street from his home. The killer, Byron de la Beckwith, eluded conviction until 1994, when he was finally convicted and sent to prison for life.

Medgar Wiley Evers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  His wife, Myrlie, moved to California with their two children and remarried.  She has recently moved back to Mississippi.  A life-size bronze statue of Evers sits in front of the Medgar Evers Public Library in Jackson. A post office and an international airport are all named after him in Jackson. And there is the Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn, and a Medgar Evers Fine and Performing Arts Elementary School in Chicago. 

Leonard Zeskind

Author Leonard Zeskind

is founder of IREHR. For almost four decades, he has been a leading authority on white nationalist political and social movements. He is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of White Nationalism from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in May 2009. [more..]

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