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Evers, Medgar 1925–1963

Medgar Evers 19251963

Civil rights leader

At a Glance

Mandated Change for Mississippi

Two Fallen LeadersOne Theme

The Evers Legacy

Sources

The Mississippi in which Medgar Evers lived was a place of blatant discrimination where blacks dared not even speak of civil rights much less actively campaign for them. Evers, a thoughtful and committed member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wanted to change his native state. He paid for his convictions with his life, becoming the first major civil rights leader to be assassinated in the 1960s. He was shot in the back on June 12, 1963, after returning late from a meeting. He was 37 years old.

Evers was featured on a nine-man death list in the deep South as early as 1955. He and his family endured numerous threats and other violent acts, making them well aware of the danger surrounding him because of his activism. Still he persisted in his efforts to integrate public facilities, schools, and restaurants. He organized voter registration drives and demonstrations. He spoke eloquently about the plight of his people and pleaded with the all-white government of Mississippi for some sort of progress in race relations. To those people who opposed such things, he was thought to be a very dangerous man. We both knew he was going to die, Myrlie Evers said of her husband in Esquire. Medgar didnt want to be a martyr. But if he had to die to get us that far, he was willing to do it.

In some ways, the death of Medgar Evers was a milestone in the hard-fought integration war that rocked America in the 1950s and 1960s. While the assassination of such a prominent black figure foreshadowed the violence to come, it also spurred other civil rights leadersthemselves targets of white supremaciststo new fervor. They, in turn, were able to infuse their followersboth black and whitewith a new and expanded sense of purpose, one that replaced apprehension with anger. Esquire contributor Maryanne Vollers wrote: People who lived through those days will tell you that something shifted in their hearts after Medgar Evers died, something that put them beyond fear. At that point a new motto was born: After Medgar, no more fear.

Evers was born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. He was the third of four children of a small farm owner who also worked at a nearby sawmill. Young Medgar grew up fast in Mississippi. His social standing was impressed upon him every day. In The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, Jack Mendelsohn quoted Evers at length about his childhood. I was born in Decatur here

At a Glance

Born Medgar Riley Evers, 1925, in Decatur, MS; died of internal injuries from a gunshot wound to the back, June 12, 1963; son of a farmer and sawmill employee and a homemaker; married Myrlie Beasley, December 24, 1951; children: Darrell Kenyatta, Reena Denise, James Van Dyke. Education: Alcorn A & M College, Lorman, MS, BA, 1952.

Insurance salesman and chapter organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1952-54; state field secretary for the NAACP, 1954-63. Military service: U.S. Army, 1943-46; served in Europe.

Awards: Spingarn medal, NAACP, 1963 (posthumous).

in Mississippi, and when we were walking to school in the first grade white kids in their schoolbusses would throw things at us and yell filthy things, the civil rights leader recollected. This was a mild start. If youre a kid in Mississippi this is the elementary course.

I graduated pretty quickly. When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my minds eye. But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes. Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro.

Evers was determined not to cave in under such pressure. He walked twelve miles each way to earn his high school diploma, and then he joined the Army during the Second World War. Perhaps it was during the years of fighting in both France and Germany for his and other countries freedom that convinced Evers to fight on his own shores for the freedom of blacks. After serving honorably in the war he was discharged in 1946.

Evers returned to Decatur where he was reunited with his brother Charlie, who had also fought in the war. The young men decided they wanted to vote in the next election. They registered to vote without incident, but as the election drew near, whites in the area began to warn and threaten Everss father. When election day came, the Evers brothers found their polling place blocked by an armed crowd of white Mississippians, estimated by Evers to be 200 strong. All we wanted to be was ordinary citizens, he declared in Martyrs. We fought during the war for America and Mississippi was included. Now after the Germans and the Japanese hadnt killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would. Evers and his brother did not vote that day.

What they did instead was join the NAACP and become active in its ranks. Evers was already busy with NAACP projects when he was a student at Alcorn A & M College in Lorman, Mississippi. He entered college in 1948, majored in business administration, and graduated in 1952. During his senior year he married a fellow student, Myrlie Beasley. After graduation the young couple moved near Everss hometown and were able to live comfortably on his earnings as an insurance salesman.

Mandated Change for Mississippi

Still the scars of racism kept accumulating. Evers was astounded by the living conditions of the rural blacks he visited on behalf of his insurance company. Then in 1954 he witnessed yet another attempted lynching. [My father] was on his deathbed in the hospital in Union [Mississippi], Evers related in Martyrs. The Negro ward was in the basement and it was terribly stuffy. My Daddy was dying slowly, in the basement of a hospital and at one point I just had to walk outside so I wouldnt burst. On that very night a Negro had fought with a white man in Union and a white mob had shot the Negro in the leg. The police brought the Negro to the hospital but the mob was outside the hospital, armed with pistols and rifles, yelling for the Negro. I walked out into the middle of it. I just stood there and everything was too much for me. It seemed that this would never change. It was that way for my Daddy, it was that way for me, and it looked as though it would be that way for my children. I was so mad I just stood there trembling and tears rolled down my cheeks.

Evers quit the insurance business and went to work for the NAACP full-time as a chapter organizer. He applied to the University of Mississippi law school but was denied admission and did not press his case. Within two years he was named state field secretary of the NAACP. Still in his early thirties, he was one of the most vocal and recognizable NAACP members in his state. In his dealings with whites and blacks alike, Evers spoke constantly of the need to overcome hatred, to promote understanding and equality between the races. It was not a message that everyone in Mississippi wanted to hear.

The Evers familyMedgar, Myrlie and their childrenmoved to the state capital of Jackson, where Evers worked closely with black church leaders and other civil rights activists. Telephone threats were a constant source of anxiety in the home, and at one point Evers taught his children to fall on the floor whenever they heard a strange noise outside. We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day, Myrlie Evers remembered in Ebony magazine. Medgar knew what he was doing, and he knew what the risks were. He just decided that he had to do what he had to do. But I knew at some point in time that he would be taken from me.

Evers must have also had a sense that his life would be cut short when what had begun as threats turned increasingly to violence. A few weeks prior to his death, someone threw a firebomb at his home. Afraid that snipers were waiting for her outside, Mrs. Evers put the fire out with the garden hose. The incident did not deter Evers from his rounds of voter registration nor from his strident plea for a biracial committee to address social concerns in Jackson. His days were filled with meetings, economic boycotts, marches, prayer vigils, and picket linesand with bailing out demonstrators arrested by the all-white police force. It was not uncommon for Evers to work twenty hours a day.

Some weeks before his death, Evers delivered a radio address about the NAACP and its aims in Mississippi. The NAACP believes that Jackson can change if it wills to do so, he stated, as quoted in Martyrs. if there should be resistance, how much better to have turbulence to effect improvement, rather than turbulence to maintain a stand-pat policy. We believe that there are white Mississippians who want to go forward on the race question. Their religion tells them there is something wrong with the old system. Their sense of justice and fair play sends them the same message. But whether Jackson and the State choose to change or not, the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture, things will never be as they once were.

Two Fallen LeadersOne Theme

On June 12, 1963, U.S. president John F. Kennedywho would be assassinated only a few short months laterechoed this sentiment in an address to the nation. Kennedy called the white resistance to civil rights for blacks a moral crisis and pledged his support to federal action on integration.

That same night, Evers returned home just after midnight from a series of NAACP functions. As he left his car with a handful of t-shirts that read Jim Crow Must Go, he was shot in the back. His wife and children, who had been waiting up for him, found him bleeding to death on the doorstep. I opened the door, and there was Medgar at the steps, face down in blood, Myrlie Evers remembered in People magazine. The children ran out and were shouting, Daddy, get up!

Evers died fifty minutes later at the hospital. On the day of his funeral in Jackson, even the use of beatings and other strong-arm police tactics could not quell the anger among the thousands of black mourners. The NAACP posthumously awarded its 1963 Spingarn medal to Medgar Evers. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had given so much to the organization and had given his life for its cause.

Rewards were offered by the governor of Mississippi and several all-white newspapers for information about Everss murderer, but few came forward with information. However, an FBI investigation uncovered a suspect, Byron de la Beckwith, an outspoken opponent of integration and a founding member of Mississippis White Citizens Council.

A gun found 150 feet from the site of the shooting had Beckwiths fingerprint on it. Several witnesses placed Beckwith in Everss neighborhood that night. On the other hand, Beckwith denied shooting Evers and claimed that his gun had been stolen days before the incident. He too produced witnessesone of them a policemanwho swore before the court that Beckwith was some 60 miles from Everss home on the night he was killed.

Beckwith was tried twice in Mississippi for Everss murder, once in 1964 and again the following year. Both trials ended in hung juries. Sam Baily, an Evers associate, commented in Esquire that during those years a white man got more time for killing a rabbit out of season than for killing a Negro in Mississippi.

After the second trial, Myrlie Evers took her children and moved to California, where she earned a degree from Pomona College and was eventually named to the Los Angeles Commission of Public Works. However, her conviction that justice was never served in her husbands case kept Mrs. Evers involved in the search for new evidence. As recently as 1991, Byron de la Beckwith was arrested a third time on charges of murdering Medgar Evers. Beckwith was extradited to Mississippi to await trial again, still maintaining his innocence and still committed to the platform of white supremacy.

The Evers Legacy

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Medgar Everss story lies in the attitudes of his two sons and one daughter. Though they experienced firsthand the destructive ways of bigotry and hatred, Everss children appear to be very well-adjusted individuals. My children turned out to be wonderfully strong and loving adults, Myrlie Evers concluded in Ebony. It has taken time to heal the wounds [from their fathers assassination] and Im not really sure all the wounds are healed. We still hurt, but we can talk about it now and cry about it openly with each other, and the bitterness and anger have gone.

At the same time, Mrs. Evers asserted in People that she hopes for Beckwiths conviction on the murder charges. People have said, Let it go, its been a long time. Why bring up all the pain and anger again? she explained. But I cant let it go. Its not finished for me, my children or grandchildren. I walked side by side with Medgar in everything he did. This [new] trial is going the last mile of the way.

Sources

Books

Altman, Susan, Extraordinary Black Americans from Colonial to Contemporary Times, Childrens Press, 1989.

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Mendelsohn, Jack, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, Harper, 1966.

Periodicals

Ebony, June 1988.

Esquire, July 1991.

Essence, February 1986.

Newsweek, July 23, 1990.

People, February 11, 1991.

Mark Kram

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Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers (1925-1963), field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was one of the first martyrs of the civil-rights movement. His death prompted President John Kennedy to ask Congress for a comprehensive civil-rights bill, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the following year.

The Mississippi in which Medgar Evers lived was a place of blatant discrimination where blacks dared not even speak of civil rights, much less actively campaign for them. Evers, a thoughtful and committed member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wanted to change his native state. He paid for his convictions with his life, becoming the first major civil rights leader to be assassinated in the 1960s. He was shot in the back on June 12, 1963, after returning late from a meeting. He was 37 years old.

Evers was featured on a nine-man death list in the deep South as early as 1955. He and his family endured numerous threats and other violent acts, making them well aware of the danger surrounding Evers because of his activism. Still he persisted in his efforts to integrate public facilities, schools, and restaurants. He organized voter registration drives and demonstrations. He spoke eloquently about the plight of his people and pleaded with the all-white government of Mississippi for some sort of progress in race relations. To those people who opposed such things, he was thought to be a very dangerous man. "We both knew he was going to die," Myrlie Evers said of her husband in Esquire. "Medgar didn't want to be a martyr. But if he had to die to get us that far, he was willing to do it."

In some ways, the death of Medgar Evers was a milestone in the hard-fought integration war that rocked America in the 1950s and 1960s. While the assassination of such a prominent black figure foreshadowed the violence to come, it also spurred other civil rights leaders—themselves targets of white supremacists—to new fervor. They, in turn, were able to infuse their followers—both black and white— with a new and expanded sense of purpose, one that replaced apprehension with anger. Esquire contributor Maryanne Vollers wrote: "People who lived through those days will tell you that something shifted in their hearts after Medgar Evers died, something that put them beyond fear…At that point a new motto was born: After Medgar, no more fear."

A Course in Racism

Evers was born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. He was the third of four children of a small farm owner who also worked at a nearby sawmill. Young Medgar grew up fast in Mississippi. His social standing was impressed upon him every day. In The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, Jack Mendelsohn quoted Evers at length about his childhood. "I was born in Decatur here in Mississippi, and when we were walking to school in the first grade white kids in their schoolbuses would throw things at us and yell filthy things," the civil rights leader recollected. "This was a mild start. If you're a kid in Mississippi this is the elementary course.

"I graduated pretty quickly. When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my mind's eye… But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes…. Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro."

Evers was determined not to cave in under such pressure. He walked twelve miles each way to earn his high school diploma, and then he joined the Army during the Second World War. Perhaps it was during the years of fighting in both France and Germany for his and other countries' freedom that convinced Evers to fight on his own shores for the freedom of blacks. After serving honorably in the war he was discharged in 1946.

Evers returned to Decatur where he was reunited with his brother Charlie, who had also fought in the war. The young men decided they wanted to vote in the next election. They registered to vote without incident, but as the election drew near, whites in the area began to warn and threaten Evers's father. When election day came, the Evers brothers found their polling place blocked by an armed crowd of white Mississippians, estimated by Evers to be 200 strong. "All we wanted to be was ordinary citizens," he declared in Martyrs. "We fought during the war for America and Mississippi was included. Now after the Germans and the Japanese hadn't killed us, it looked as though the white Mississippians would." Evers and his brother did not vote that day.

What they did instead was join the NAACP and become active in its ranks. Evers was already busy with NAACP projects when he was a student at Alcorn A & M College in Lorman, Mississippi. He entered college in 1948, majored in business administration, and graduated in 1952. During his senior year he married a fellow student, Myrlie Beasley. After graduation the young couple moved near Evers's hometown and were able to live comfortably on his earnings as an insurance salesman.

Mandated Change for Mississippi

Still the scars of racism kept accumulating. Evers was astounded by the living conditions of the rural blacks he visited on behalf of his insurance company. Then in 1954 he witnessed yet another attempted lynching. "[My father] was on his deathbed in the hospital in Union [Mississippi]," Evers related in Martyrs. "The Negro ward was in the basement and it was terribly stuffy. My Daddy was dying slowly, in the basement of a hospital and at one point I just had to walk outside so I wouldn't burst. On that very night a Negro had fought with a white man in Union and a white mob had shot the Negro in the leg. The police brought the Negro to the hospital but the mob was outside the hospital, armed with pistols and rifles, yelling for the Negro. I walked out into the middle of it. I just stood there and everything was too much for me…. It seemed that this would never change. It was that way for my Daddy, it was that way for me, and it looked as though it would be that way for my children. I was so mad I just stood there trembling and tears rolled down my cheeks."

Evers quit the insurance business and went to work for the NAACP full-time as a chapter organizer. He applied to the University of Mississippi law school but was denied admission and did not press his case. Within two years he was named state field secretary of the NAACP. Still in his early thirties, he was one of the most vocal and recognizable NAACP members in his state. In his dealings with whites and blacks alike, Evers spoke constantly of the need to overcome hatred, to promote understanding and equality between the races. It was not a message that everyone in Mississippi wanted to hear.

The Evers family—Medgar, Myrlie and their children— moved to the state capital of Jackson, where Evers worked closely with black church leaders and other civil rights activists. Telephone threats were a constant source of anxiety in the home, and at one point Evers taught his children to fall on the floor whenever they heard a strange noise outside. "We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day," Myrlie Evers remembered in Ebony magazine. "Medgar knew what he was doing, and he knew what the risks were. He just decided that he had to do what he had to do. But I knew at some point in time that he would be taken from me."

Evers must have also had a sense that his life would be cut short when what had begun as threats turned increasingly to violence. A few weeks prior to his death, someone threw a firebomb at his home. Afraid that snipers were waiting for her outside, Mrs. Evers put the fire out with the garden hose. The incident did not deter Evers from his rounds of voter registration nor from his strident plea for a biracial committee to address social concerns in Jackson. His days were filled with meetings, economic boycotts, marches, prayer vigils, and picket lines—and with bailing out demonstrators arrested by the all-white police force. It was not uncommon for Evers to work twenty hours a day.

Some weeks before his death, Evers delivered a radio address about the NAACP and its aims in Mississippi. "The NAACP believes that Jackson can change if it wills to do so," he stated, as quoted in Martyrs. "If there should be resistance, how much better to have turbulence to effect improvement, rather than turbulence to maintain a stand-pat policy. We believe that there are white Mississippians who want to go forward on the race question. Their religion tells them there is something wrong with the old system. Their sense of justice and fair play sends them the same message. But whether Jackson and the State choose to change or not, the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture, things will never be as they once were."

Two Fallen Leaders—One Theme

On June 12, 1963, U.S. president John F. Kennedy— who would be assassinated only a few short months later— echoed this sentiment in an address to the nation. Kennedy called the white resistance to civil rights for blacks "a moral crisis" and pledged his support to federal action on integration.

That same night, Evers returned home just after midnight from a series of NAACP functions. As he left his car with a handful of t-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go," he was shot in the back. His wife and children, who had been waiting up for him, found him bleeding to death on the doorstep. "I opened the door, and there was Medgar at the steps, face down in blood," Myrlie Evers remembered in People magazine. "The children ran out and were shouting, 'Daddy, get up!"'

Evers died fifty minutes later at the hospital. On the day of his funeral in Jackson, even the use of beatings and other strong-arm police tactics could not quell the anger among the thousands of black mourners. The NAACP posthumously awarded its 1963 Spingarn medal to Medgar Evers. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had given so much to the organization and had given his life for its cause.

Rewards were offered by the governor of Mississippi and several all-white newspapers for information about Evers's murderer, but few came forward with information. However, an FBI investigation uncovered a suspect, Byron de la Beckwith, an outspoken opponent of integration and a founding member of Mississippi's White Citizens Council. A gun found 150 feet from the site of the shooting had Beckwith's fingerprint on it. Several witnesses placed Beckwith in Evers's neighborhood that night. On the other hand, Beckwith denied shooting Evers and claimed that his gun had been stolen days before the incident. He too produced witnesses—one of them a policeman—who swore before the court that Beckwith was some 60 miles from Evers's home on the night he was killed.

Beckwith was tried twice in Mississippi for Evers's murder, once in 1964 and again the following year. Both trials ended in hung juries. Sam Baily, an Evers associate, commented in Esquire that during those years "a white man got more time for killing a rabbit out of season than for killing a Negro in Mississippi."

After the second trial, Myrlie Evers took her children and moved to California, where she earned a degree from Pomona College and was eventually named to the Los Angeles Commission of Public Works. However, her conviction that justice was never served in her husband's case kept Mrs. Evers involved in the search for new evidence. As recently as 1991, Byron de la Beckwith was arrested a third time on charges of murdering Medgar Evers. Beckwith was extradited to Mississippi to await trial again, still maintaining his innocence and still committed to the platform of white supremacy.

The Evers Legacy

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Medgar Evers's story lies in the attitudes of his two sons and one daughter. Though they experienced firsthand the destructive ways of bigotry and hatred, Evers's children appear to be very well-adjusted individuals. "My children turned out to be wonderfully strong and loving adults," Myrlie Evers concluded Ebony. "It has taken time to heal the wounds [from their father's assassination] and I'm not really sure all the wounds are healed. We still hurt, but we can talk about it now and cry about it openly with each other, and the bitterness and anger have gone."

At the same time, Mrs. Evers asserted in People that she hopes for Beckwith's conviction on the murder charges. (He was, indeed, convicted after the third trial.) "People have said, 'Let it go, it's been a long time. Why bring up all the pain and anger again?"' she explained. "But I can't let it go. It's not finished for me, my children or … grandchildren. I walked side by side with Medgar in everything he did. This [new] trial is going the last mile of the way."

Further Reading

Altman, Susan, Extraordinary Black Americans from Colonial to Contemporary Times, Children's Press, 1989.

Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Mendelsohn, Jack, The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, Harper, 1966.

Ebony, June 1988.

Esquire, July 1991.

Essence, February 1986.

Newsweek, July 23, 1990.

People, February 11, 1991. □

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Evers, Medgar

Medgar Evers

Born: July 19, 1925
Decatur, Mississippi

Died: June 12, 1963
Jackson, Mississippi

African American civil and human rights activist

Medgar Evers, field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was one of the most important figures of the African American civil rights movement. He paid for his beliefs with his life, becoming the first major civil rights leader to be assassinated in the 1960s. His death prompted President John F. Kennedy (191763) to ask Congress for a national civil rights bill, which President Lyndon Johnson (190873) signed into law in 1964.

A course in racism

Medgar Evers was born on July 19, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, the third of four children of a small farm owner. In The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice, Jack Mendelsohn quoted Evers on his childhood. "I was born in Decatur here in Mississippi, and when we were walking to school in the first grade white kids in their schoolbuses would throw things at us and yell filthy things," the civil rights leader recollected. "This was a mild start. If you're a kid in Mississippi this is the elementary course."

By the time Evers reached adulthood he had, as he put it in Mendelsohn's book, moved on from this "elementary course" in racism (a dislike or disrespect of someone based on the color of their skin) and "graduated pretty quickly." In the Mississippi of Evers's boyhood, African Americans were routinely terrorized by the violence of racist whites. Lynching (the killing of a person by a group of people outside of the law) was common, and discrimination (treating people differently based on their race) was an everyday fact. However, Evers was fortunate to have an example of strong independence and pride in his own father. James Evers, Medgar's father, refused to get off the sidewalk to let a white man pass as was customary. Unlike many African Americans in the South, he also owned his own land.

The young Medgar Evers was determined not to cave in to hardship. He walked twelve miles each way to earn his high school diploma and then joined the U.S. Army during World War II (193945), a war that involved countries in many parts of the world. He was discharged from the army in 1946.

Joining the NAACP

After the war Evers returned to Decatur, where he was reunited with his brother Charlie. The young men decided they wanted to vote in the next election. Since the aim of discrimination was to keep power in the hands of the South's white population, preventing and discouraging African Americans from voting was a major tactic of white racists. When election day came, the Evers brothers found their polling place blocked by an armed crowd of whites, estimated by Evers to be two hundred strong.

Evers and his brother did not vote that day. Instead they joined the NAACP and became active in its ranks. Evers was already busy with NAACP projects when he was a student at Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Mississippi. He entered college in 1948, majored in business administration, and graduated in 1952. During his senior year he married Myrlie Beasley. After graduation the young couple lived on his earnings as an insurance salesman.

Evers continued to witness the victims of hate and racism. He saw the terrible living conditions of the rural blacks he visited while working for his company. Then in 1954 he witnessed an attempted lynching during a time of great personal sorrow. His father was dying in the hospital, and while visiting him Evers went to get a breath of air outside. As he later related in The Martyrs, "On that very night a Negro had fought with a white man in Union [Mississippi] and a white mob had shot the Negro in the leg. The police brought the Negro to the hospital but the mob was outside armed with pistols and rifles, yelling for the Negro. I walked out into the middle of it. It seemed that this would never change."

Campaigning for civil rights

Evers soon went to work for the NAACP full time. Within two years he was named to the important position of state field secretary for the organization. Still in his early thirties, he was one of the most well-known NAACP members in his state. With his wife and children, he moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he worked closely with black church leaders and other civil rights activists. Evers spoke constantly of the need to overcome hatred and promote understanding and equality between the races. It was not a message that everyone in Mississippi wanted to hear.

Evers was featured on a nine-man death list in the deep South as early as 1955. He and his family endured many threats and other violent acts, making them well aware of the danger surrounding Evers because of his activities. Still he persisted in his efforts to end segregation (separating people based solely on their race) in public facilities, schools, and restaurants. He organized voter-registration drives and demonstrations. His days were filled with meetings, economic boycotts (to make a stand against a person or a business by refusing to buy their goods, products, or businesses), marches, prayer services, picket lines, and bailing other demonstrators out of jail.

A fallen leader

On June 12, 1963, President Kennedy made an address to the nation. Kennedy believed that whites standing in the way of civil rights for blacks represented "a moral crisis" and pledged his support to federal action on integration, or ending segregation. That same night, Evers returned home just after midnight from a series of NAACP functions. As he left his car, he was shot in the back. Evers died shortly thereafter at the hospital.

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) looked into Evers's murder, a suspect was uncovered, Byron de la Beckwith (19202001), who was an outspoken opponent of integration and a member of a group called the Mississippi's White Citizens Council. A gun found 150 feet from the site of the shooting had Beckwith's fingerprint on it. Several witnesses placed Beckwith in Evers's neighborhood that night. However, he denied shooting Evers and claimed his gun had been stolen days before the incident. Beckwith, too, produced witnesses who swore that he was some sixty miles from Evers's home on the night of the murder.

Beckwith was tried twice in Mississippi for Evers's murder during the 1960s, once in 1964 and again the following year. Both trials ended in hung juries. After the second trial, Myrlie Evers took her children and moved to California. However, her strong belief that justice was never served in her husband's case kept Mrs. Evers involved in the search for new evidence. In 1991, Byron de la Beckwith was arrested a third time on charges of murdering Medgar Evers. He was finally convicted of the crime in 1994.

The Evers legacy

In some ways, the death of Medgar Evers was a milestone in the hard-fought civil rights war that rocked America in the 1950s and 1960s. While Evers's assassination foreshadowed the violence to come, it also inspired civil rights leaders and their followers to work for their cause with still more dedication. Above all, it inspired them to work with the courage that Evers himself had shown.

For More Information

Altman, Susan. Extraordinary Black Americans from Colonial to Contemporary Times. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989.

Brown, Jennie. Medgar Evers. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1994.

DeLaughter, Bobby. Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Ribeiro, Myra. The Assassination of Medgar Evers. New York: Rosen, 2002.

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Evers, Medgar

Evers, Medgar

July 2, 1925
June 12, 1963


The civil rights activist Medgar Wylie Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, served in World War II, graduated

from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, and became an insurance agent. Refused admission to the University of Mississippi's law school, he became the first Mississippi field director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Evers's job entailed investigating the murders of blacks in Mississippi, including that of Emmett Till; local police generally dismissed such cases as accidents. A clear target for violence, Evers bought a car big enough to resist being forced off the road, roomy enough to sleep in where motels were segregated, and powerful enough for quick escapes. His family owned guns and kept the window blinds drawn. Evers received daily death threats but always tried reasoning with callers.

He led voter registration drives and fought segregation; organized consumer boycotts to integrate Leake County schools and the Mississippi State Fair; assisted James Meredith in entering the University of Mississippi; and won a lawsuit integrating Jackson's privately owned buses. He also began a similar effort with Jackson's public parks.

In May 1963, Evers's house was bombed. At a June NAACP rally he declared, "Freedom has never been free. I would die, and die gladly, if that would make a better life for [my family]."

On June 12, Evers arrived home in the middle of the night. His wife heard his car door slam, then heard gunshots. He died that night; his accused murderer was acquitted, despite compelling evidence against him. Evers was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Meredith, James H.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Till, Emmett Louis

Bibliography

Evers, Myrlie, with William Peters. For Us, the Living. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967.

Morris, Willie. The Ghosts of Medgar Evers: A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood. New York: Random House, 1998.

Wilbert, Lauren. "Medgar Evers' Death Commemorated at Arlington Cemetary." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 16, 2003, p. K5684.

Williams, Juan. Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 19541965. New York: Viking, 1987.

elizabeth fortson arroyo (1996)
Updated bibliography

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Evers, Medgar

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers was the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early 1960s. He became one of the first leaders of the nonviolent African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He was killed for his work.

A course in racism

Evers was born on July 2, 1925, and grew up on a small farm in Decatur, Mississippi . It was not an easy place to grow up. The white children in his town made nasty, racial remarks and threw things at him as he walked to school. He remembered seeing the body of a family friend who had been beaten to death by white men.

Even as a child, Evers was determined to rise above the racist environment. He walked twelve miles each way to school every day. After graduating from high school, he joined the army during World War II (1939–45), and served honorably in the war.

When Evers returned to Decatur in 1946, he and his brother Charlie, who had also fought in the war, decided they wanted to vote in the next election, even though whites in the area barred blacks from voting for generations. The Evers brothers registered to vote without incident, but as the election drew near, whites in the area began to threaten their father. When election day came, an armed crowd of about two hundred white Mississippians blocked the Evers brothers from entering the voting place.

Evers and his brother were determined to change things. They joined the NAACP and became active in its ranks. Evers was already busy with NAACP projects when he entered Alcorn A&M College in 1948. He majored in business administration and graduated in 1952. During his senior year, he married a fellow student, Myrlie Beasley (1933–). After graduation, the young couple lived comfortably on his earnings as an insurance salesman.

Mandated change for Mississippi

Evers was astounded by the living conditions of the rural blacks he visited on the job. In 1954, he witnessed an attempted lynching of a black man. Outraged, Evers quit the insurance business and went to work full-time for the NAACP as a chapter organizer. Within two years, he was named state field secretary. Still in his early thirties, he was one of the most vocal and recognizable NAACP members in his state. In his dealings with whites and blacks alike, Evers spoke constantly of the need to overcome hatred and to promote understanding and equality between the races. It was not a message that everyone in Mississippi wanted to hear.

Evers moved with his family to the state capital of Jackson, where he worked closely with black church leaders and other civil rights activists. By 1955, his name was featured on a nine-man death list drawn up by white racists. Telephone threats of violence against Evers and his family were a constant source of anxiety in the Evers home. Evers even taught his children to fall on the floor whenever they heard a strange noise outside in case the sounds were gunshots.

A few weeks prior to his death, someone threw a firebomb at his home. His wife put the fire out with a garden hose, afraid to run for help in case an attacker lay in wait. Not even the threats to his family could deter Evers from making his rounds for voter registration or from petitioning for a biracial (made up of blacks and whites) committee to address social concerns in Jackson. His days were filled with meetings, economic boycotts, marches, prayer vigils, and picket lines—and with bailing out demonstrators arrested by the all-white police force. It was not uncommon for Evers to work twenty hours a day.

A fallen leader

On June 12, 1963, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) denounced the white resistance to civil rights for blacks, pledging his support to federal action on integration. That night, Evers returned home just after midnight from a series of NAACP functions. As he left his car he was shot in the back. His wife and children found him bleeding to death on the doorstep. He died fifty minutes later at the hospital. He was thirty-seven years old.

The governor of Mississippi and several all-white newspapers offered rewards for information about Evers's murderer. Few came forward with information, but an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uncovered a suspect, Byron de la Beckwith (1920–2001), an outspoken member of a white supremacist group (a group that believes white people should rule over people of all other races). A gun found 150 feet from the site of the shooting had Beckwith's fingerprint on it and he had been seen in Evers's neighborhood the night of the attack. Beckwith, who claimed he was innocent, was tried twice in Mississippi for Evers's murder, once in 1964 and again the following year. Despite strong evidence against him, the all-white juries in both trials ended in deadlock decisions, and Beckwith walked free.

In 1991, more than twenty-five years after Evers's murder, Beckwith was arrested a third time. In 1994, a jury of eight blacks and four whites convicted him of murdering Evers. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

The Evers legacy

With his unblinking courage and dedication to the cause of justice and equality, Evers made a huge difference in the civil rights struggle, even though his life was cut short. Upon his death, anger replaced fear in the South; hundreds of demonstrators marched in protest. His death prompted President Kennedy to ask Congress for a comprehensive civil-rights bill, which President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69) signed into law the following year. (See Civil Rights Act of 1964 .)

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