Medgar Evers was the field secretary of the NAACP and a major figure in civil rights history. Evers paid the ultimate price for his commitment to the cause of civil rights when he was murdered on June 12th, 1963.
Medgar Evers was born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. Mid-twenties Mississippi epitomised the White attitude to African Americans in the South. Few black children went to school, segregation in just about all aspects of life existed, most African Americans there could only expect the most menial of jobs. Lynching was used to keep the blacks ‘in their place’. The KKK was strong in Mississippi. Where the KKK existed, African Americans learned to live in fear of doing anything other than what was expected of them by the dominant White community. Evers grew up in this environment.
As with all black youths in Decatur, Evers experienced racial abuse from an early age. In later years he recollected how a family friend was lynched in the town for answering back to a white woman. Everyone in Decatur apparently knew who did the killing but no-one was ever charged and nothing was ever said in public about it. The dead man’s bloodied clothes were left in public presumably as a warning to other African Americans about the consequences of such behaviour.
|“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 if this man just dissolved except for his bloody clothes.”Evers|
Despite the many obstacles put in the way of an African American receiving a decent education, Evers got his high school diploma by walking twelve miles to school and twelve miles back each week day. During World War Two, he joined the American Army and was honourably discharged from it in 1946.
Evers returned from a Europe that had been freed from tyranny. After going through this experience, he decided that the South should be the same – free from tyranny. Ironically for Mississippi, Evers had no problems registering to vote for the 1948 election. However, as the vote neared, his family was subjected to more and more threats. When the voting day arrived, Evers and his brother Charlie found that about 200 white men blocked their way to the polling station. They never got to vote.
Instead both young men joined the NAACP. Medgar became a very active member of it. He combined this work with studying at Alcorn A + M College in Lorman, Mississippi where he graduated in business administration in 1952. While at college, Evers married Myrlie Beasley. After graduating, Evers became an insurance salesman and he had a comfortable lifestyle.
However, in 1954, while his father lay ill in hospital, Evers witnessed an attempted lynching. His father had been placed in the ‘Negro Ward’ in the basement of the hospital. In an effort to get some fresh air, Evers went outside where he saw a large mob of whites had gathered, demanding that an injured black man be brought outside for them. His crime? He had fought with a white man in the town of Union. Injured after being shot in the leg, the police had brought him to hospital. The mob gathered outside.
|“It seemed that this (racism) 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 that I just stood there trembling and tears rolled down my cheeks.”Evers|
After this incident, Evers quit his job in insurance and went to work for the NAACP full-time. He quickly rose to become a field secretary within Mississippi. Evers became one of the best known and most vocal members of the NAACP in the state. He moved to the state capital, Jackson, to be nearer more civil rights leaders. However, his work gained him many enemies. His children were taught to throw themselves to the floor if they heard any strange noises outside. Evers received numerous threats over the phone and shortly before his death, his house was fire-bombed.
|“We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day. 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 that he would be taken from me.”Myrlie Evers|
Regardless of the threats, Evers carried on working – especially with voter registration.
On June 12th, 1963, J F Kennedy addressed the nation on civil rights and stated that there would be federal support to push forward integration. Evers had worked all day and returned home late at night. As he got out of his car, he was shot in the back and died fifty minutes later in hospital.
|“We both knew he was going to die. Medgar did not want to be a martyr. But if he had to die to get us that far, he was willing to do it.”Myrlie Evers|
Byron de la Beckwith was arrested for the murder. His rifle had been found near the shooting and he had been seen by some youths in the vicinity of Ever’s house. His car was also positively identified. However, others stated in his trial that Beckwith had been seen 60 miles away at the very time of the shooting, and, therefore, could not have been the killer. Beckwith was tried twice for the murder (in 1964 and 1965) but was not convicted. However, he was re-arrested for the murder in 1991 and found guilty. Sentenced to life in prison, Beckwith died aged 80 in prison.