Medgar EversAug 3rd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1925-1963 Medgar Evers’ work as NAACP state field secretary for Mississippi led to his assassination by a white supremacist. After more than 30 years and three separate trials, his killer was finally brought to justice, in what has become a celebrated and inspirational story of victory and sacrifice for the Civil Rights Movement.
Insurance to Activism
Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925, the son of a sawmill worker and a domestic. With the advent of World War II, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, and saw service in France and Germany. After his honorable discharge in 1946 with the rank of Sergeant, he returned home, and in 1948 enrolled at the Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Lorman where he majored in business administration. In his senior year, Evers met and married Myrlie Beasley, another student, with whom he would have three children.
After graduation in 1952, Evers entered the insurance business as a traveling salesman for the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, an African American firm. His time spent in impoverished Mississippi communities gave him keen insight into the plight of poor Blacks, and informed his work as a volunteer for the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1954, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education banning segregation in schools, Evers applied to, and was rejected by, the all-white University of Mississippi Law School. The NAACP capitalized on his rejection to mount a campaign to desegregate the school, and concurrently named Evers to the newly created staff position of state field director. The campaign ultimately succeeded with the enrollment of James Meredith in 1962.
As field director, Evers relocated to the state capital, Jackson, and adopted a strong activist method in contrast to the NAACP’s normally studied position. In addition to such local organizing activities as voter registration, he was involved with boycotts of discriminatory businesses, demonstrations, and investigations into racial murders such as the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy allegedly killed for talking to a white woman. As a result, he became an extremely visible civil rights leader and the target of racist antipathy. A series of threats and vigilante actions against him and his family escalated with the acceleration of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and in particular the Jackson campaign, which he led. In May 1963, Evers’ carport was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail. In early June, a car almost ran him over as he exited the NAACP Jackson office. When a local television station aired a short speech by Evers, a first for the state, threats multiplied and tensions ran high.
Returning home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers on June 12, 1963, mere hours after President John F. Kennedy’s historic speech affirming civil rights, Evers parked in his driveway and stepped out of his car. He was immediately hit by a bullet in the back. He staggered up the driveway and collapsed. Less than an hour later, he was pronounced dead in a local hospital. Over 3,000 people attended the ceremony at his interment at Arlington National Cemetery on June 19, with full military honors bestowed. In the words of the former chairman of the American Veterans’ Committee, “No soldier in this field has fought more courageously, more heroically than Medgar Evers.” The sense of national outrage that attended Evers’ death is credited with contributing to the passage of the landmark federal Civil Rights Act the following year.
Less than two weeks after the killing, on June 24, a suspect was arrested. Byron de la Beckwith was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a founding member of the Mississippi White Citizens Council. He denied culpability. Strong physical evidence linked him to the crime, including a rifle registered to him found near the scene and bearing his fingerprints, and witnesses placed him in the area at the time of the shooting. But the virulent racist culture of Jim Crow Mississippi, and an all-white jury, made the outcome of de la Beckwith’s first trial in 1964 uncertain. He was visited in court by former Governor Ross Barnett; he claimed that the rifle had been stolen from him, and he produced witnesses who established an alibi for him on the night of the murder. The jury deadlocked. The pattern repeated itself in a second trial with another all-white jury later that year, whereupon de la Beckwith walked away a free man.
Public outcry found its expression in a number of popular treatments. Songs by Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and Phil Ochs gave vent to a widespread sense of righteous anger. Writers Eudora Welty and Rex Stout produced stories involving the crime. Meanwhile, Evers’ widow, Myrlie, relocated to California with her children, and continued her search for evidence that could reopen the case. Then in 1989, a Jackson newspaper reported on the defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which had supported segregationist practices in the 1950s. Information in the organization’s uncovered files prompted the Hinds County District Attorney to renew its investigation, which led to witnesses willing to testify that de la Beckwith had bragged about committing Evers’ murder. Evers’ corpse was disinterred for additional forensic analysis.
A new indictment was handed down in 1990, which, after numerous appeals, led to a 1993 decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court to hold a third trial. Argued before a mixed jury comprised of four white and eight blacks jurors, this trial resulted in de la Beckwith’s conviction and a sentence of life imprisonment in February, 1994, almost 31 years after the crime.
Evers’ work, life, and tragic death are remembered as central to the early Civil Rights Movement. The NAACP posthumously awarded its prestigious Spingarn Medal to Evers in 1963. His legacy is also commemorated in the 1996 film “Ghosts of Mississippi,” which recounts the investigation and third trial of de la Beckwith in 1994.