||This article's introduction section may not adequately summarize its contents. To comply with Wikipedia's lead section guidelines, please consider expanding the lead to provide an accessible overview of the article's key points. (October 2009)|
|Medgar Wiley Evers|
|Born||July 2, 1925
Decatur, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||June 12, 1963 (aged 37)
Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Myrlie Evers-Williams 1951–1963 (his death)|
|Parents||James Evers (father)|
Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925– June 12, 1963) was an African American civil rights activist from Mississippi who was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery after being assassinated by Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith. Evers' life, his murder, and the resulting trials inspired protests as well as numerous works including music and film.
Medgar Evers was born July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, the son of James Evers, who was the owner of a small farm and a sawmill worker, and a devout woman named Jessie. Evers was the third of five children, after Charles and Elizabeth. A daughter named Ruth was the youngest. The family was rounded out by Eva Lee and Gene (who were Jessie–s children from a prior marriage). Determined to get the education he deserved after the lynching of a family friend, Evers walked twelve miles to and from school to earn his high school diploma. In 1943 he was inducted into the army along with his older brother Charlie. Evers fought in France, the European Theatre of WWII and was honorably discharged in 1945 as a Sergeant. In 1946, Evers, along with his brother and four friends, returned to his hometown.
In 1948, Evers enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), majoring in business administration. In college, he was on the debate team, played football and ran track, sang in the school choir and served as president of his junior class. It was here that he was listed in Who–s Who in American Colleges for his many accomplishments.
He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on December 24, 1951, and received his BA degree the following year. Myrlie Beasley and Medgar Evers had three children, two boys and a girl, before his murder. In 2001, their oldest son, Darrell Kenyatta Evers, died of colon cancer. Their two surviving children are Reena Denise and James Van.
The couple moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where T. R. M. Howard had hired him to sell insurance for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Howard was also the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization. Involvement in the RCNL gave Evers crucial training in activism. He helped to organize the RCNL's boycott of service stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom." Along with his brother, Charles Evers, Medgar also attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954 which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.
Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was rejected, Evers filed a lawsuit against the university, and became the focus of a NAACP campaign to desegregate the school, a case aided by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 that segregation was unconstitutional. That same year, due to his involvement, the NAACP's National Office suggested he become Mississippi–s first field secretary for the NAACP.
On November 24, 1954, Evers was appointed Mississippi–s first field secretary. President of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference and civil rights activist, E.J. Stringer, helped him gain this position.
Evers was involved in a boycott campaign against white merchants and was instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi when that institution was finally forced to enroll James Meredith in 1962.
The admission of Meredith led to a riot on campus that left two people dead. Evers– involvement and investigative work brought about hatred in many white supremacists. In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself even more of a target. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard made him a prominent black leader and therefore vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home. Five days before his death, Evers was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.
On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway just after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. 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 Enfield 1917 .303 rifle that ricocheted into his Jackson, Mississippi home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later, just hours after President John F. Kennedy's speech on national television in support of civil rights.
On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers' murder. During the course of his first trial in 1964, De La Beckwith was visited by former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker.
Juries composed of all white men twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt.
The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar. Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963 song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" about Evers and his assassin. The song's lyrics included: "Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king." Nina Simone took up the topic in her song "Mississippi Goddam". Phil Ochs wrote the songs "Too Many Martyrs" and "Another Country" in response to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the haunting "Ballad of Medgar Evers." Eudora Welty's short story "Where is the Voice Coming From," in which the speaker is the imagined assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker. Even Rex Stout used the event as a plot device in his civil rights themed mystery A Right to Die.
Malvina Reynolds mentioned "the shot in Evers' back" in her 1964 song "It Isn't Nice", and in 1965, Jackson C. Frank included the lyrics "But there aren't words to bring back Evers" in his tribute to the civil rights movement, "Don't Look Back," on his only album.
In 1994, 30 years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, De La Beckwith was again brought to trial based on new evidence, and Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as the prosecutor. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly good state of preservation as a result of embalming. De La Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for the three decades following the killing. De La Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January 2001.
Evers' legacy has been kept alive in a variety of ways. Minrose Gwin notes that after his death, Medgar Evers was memorialized by the authors Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Margaret Walker and Anne Moody. In 1969, Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York as part of the City University of New York. In 1983, a made-for-television movie, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story starring Howard Rollins, Jr. and Irene Cara as Medgar and Myrlie Evers aired on PBS, celebrating the life and career of Medgar Evers. On June 28, 1992, the city of Jackson, MS erected a statue in honor of Evers. All of Delta Drive (part of U.S. Highway 49) in Jackson was renamed in Evers' honor. In December 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the city's airport to Jackson-Evers International Airport in honor of Evers.
40 years after his death, hundreds gathered around the grave site of Medgar Evers at Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate his life and legacy. Three students - Sharmistha Dev, Jajah Wu and Debra Siegel, and their teacher, Barry Bradford of Adlai E. Stevenson High School, which is located just outside of Chicago, held the commemoration in his honor. Evers was the subject of the students' research project.
The 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi directed by Rob Reiner tells the story of the 1994 retrial of Beckwith, in which prosecutor Robert DeLaughter of the District Attorney's office secured a conviction. Beckwith and DeLaughter were played by James Woods and Alec Baldwin, respectively; Whoopi Goldberg played Myrlie Evers. Phil Ochs tells his story in the song "Too Many Martyrs." Robert DeLaughter wrote a first person narrative article titled "Mississippi Justice" published in Reader's Digest and a book "Never Too Late".
Evers's widow, Myrlie, became a noted activist in her own right later in life, eventually serving as chair of the NAACP. Medgar's brother Charles returned to Jackson in July 1963 and served briefly in his slain brother's place. Charles Evers remained involved in Mississippi Civil Rights for years to come. He resides in Jackson.
Early in 2007, comedian Chris Rock appeared as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher. Regarding a recent incident in which comedian Michael Richards had repeatedly called an African-American man in the audience "nigger" during a performance, Bill Maher asked Chris Rock if Rock considered Richards racist. Rock responded "He stood up for two minutes and shouted 'nigger'! What do you have to do? Shoot Medgar Evers?"
More recently, rapper Immortal Technique asks if a diamond is "worth the blood of Malcolm and Medgar Evers?" in the song "Crossing the Boundary". On "I Can't Go to Sleep" by Wu-Tang Clan, RZA raps "Medgar took one to the skull for integrating college." The 2009 album Gutter Tactics by experimental hip-hop group Dlek contains a song titled "Who Medgar Evers Was...".
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, will be named after him. There is also a Medgar Evers Pool in Seattle, Washington.
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