On June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, a shot rang out and the life of Medgar Wiley Evers was forever stilled. Evers knew he faced death for daring to fight for voting rights, and striving to end segregation and injustice in the South.
"If I die," he said, "It will be in a good cause. I've been fighting for America just as much as soldiers in Vietnam." So spoke NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers as he moved about the beleaguered city of Jackson, Miss., in the long hot summer of 1963. "I'm looking to be shot," he told a friend, "any time I step out of my car." And when, on Tuesday, June 11, he dropped a second friend off after a meeting, he confided, "Everywhere I go, somebody has been following me."
Fifteen minutes later, shortly after midnight on June 12, Evers stepped out of his car in the driveway of his home on Guynes Street. A white man, hidden in a honeysuckle thicket 150 yards away, fixed him in the cross hairs of his high-powered rifle and fired one bullet, splattering his life and blood on the concrete driveway.
Myrlie Evers, who had been expecting the worst, ran out of the house, screaming, "Medgar," she said later, "was lying there on the doorstep in a pool of blood. I tried to get the children away, but they saw it all."
For decades his wife Myrlie sought justice for Medgar and fought to see Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith convicted for his assassination.
A 13-foot tall bronze statue of Evers (pictured above)—the work of African-American sculptor Ed Dwight—was installed at Alcorn State University, Evers’ alma mater, in 2013. Medgar Evers College was founded in his name in 1970 as part of the City University of New York (CUNY). There are other memorials to Evers, but the most important is the one we often overlook:
As we watch millions of voters head to the polls in an election year—many of them African-American, other people of color, and female—too often we forget that those ballots cast were paid for in blood. By exercising the franchise, we actively pay tribute to those men and women who made it possible for us to do so.
I often worry that the sacrifices made by men and women whose very lives were taken so that many of us can cast a ballot are being forgotten. Those of us who lived through this history have a responsibility to pass it on, even if it is not always being taught in our schools.
We can start by learning more about Evers, his activism, and his legacy.
Some suggested readings:
The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable
The Autobiography of Medgar Evers is the first and only comprehensive collection of the words of slain civil rights hero Medgar Evers. Evers became a leader of the civil rights movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. He established NAACP chapters throughout the Mississippi delta region, and eventually became the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow, partnered with Manning Marable, one of the country’s leading black scholars, to develop this book based on the previously untouched cache of Medgar’s personal documents and writings. These writings range from Medgar’s monthly reports to the NAACP to his correspondence with luminaries of the time such as Robert Carter, General Counsel for the NAACP in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Still, most moving of all, is the preface written by Myrlie Evers.
Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, by Michael Vinson Williams
Civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers was well aware of the dangers he would face when he challenged the status quo in Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s, a place and time known for the brutal murders of Emmett Till, Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, and others. Nonetheless, Evers consistently investigated the rapes, murders, beatings, and lynchings of black Mississippians and reported the horrid incidents to a national audience, all the while organizing economic boycotts, sit-ins, and street protests in Jackson as the NAACP's first full-time Mississippi field secretary. He organized and participated in voting drives and nonviolent direct-action protests, joined lawsuits to overturn state-supported school segregation, and devoted himself to a career path that eventually cost him his life. This biography of an important civil rights leader draws on personal interviews from Myrlie Evers-Williams (Evers's widow), his two remaining siblings, friends, grade-school-to-college schoolmates, and fellow activists to elucidate Evers as an individual, leader, husband, brother, and father. Extensive archival work in the Evers Papers, the NAACP Papers, oral history collections, FBI files, Citizen Council collections, and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Papers, to list a few, provides a detailed account of Evers's NAACP work and a clearer understanding of the racist environment that ultimately led to his murder.
The third suggested text is neither a biography nor a history. It is Frank X Walker's Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.
Around the void left by the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, the poems in this collection speak, unleashing the strong emotions both before and after the moment of assassination. Poems take on the voices of Evers's widow, Myrlie; his brother, Charles; his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith; and each of De La Beckwith's two wives. Except for the book's title,"Turn me loose," which were his final words, Evers remains in this collection silent. Yet the poems accumulate facets of the love and hate with which others saw this man, unghosting him in a way that only imagination makes possible.
Here’s Anna Faktorovich, in her Pennsylvania Literary Journal review:
The poems speak from the perspectives of the people who were close to Evers, and even of the man who shot him. The opening poem is voiced by Myrlie Evers, Medgar's wife, who expresses anger about historians who neglect the history of the Civil Rights movement before 1964. Indeed, the Civil Rights movement started at least as far back as World War II, when African Americans, including Evers, fought to desegregate the Army, and to fight in the War.
The poems from the assassin's, or Byron De La Beckwith's, perspective begin with a poem on his grandfather teaching him how to wait for the fish, and showing the parallel between killing the flapping body of a fish and killing a "nigger". Then the racist thought-pattern that dehumanized blacks is explained through racist anecdotes and equating men with dogs, or breaking people into sexualized body parts.
The style and lyricism of these poems remind me of the Harlem Renaissance and Jean Toomer's Cane, and perhaps this was intentional. The poem that made this parallel clear was, "Sorority Meeting," narrated through Myrlie Evers, "We are sorority sisters now/ with a gutwrenching country ballad/ for a sweetheart song, tired funeral/ and courtroom clothes for colors/ and secrets we will take to our graves."
Remembering Medgar Evers today and the ultimate sacrifice he made, I ask you to join me in fighting voter suppression and obstruction.
Pass on his history to someone you know, and support the organizations currently fighting against Republican Party efforts in Congress and state legislatures to suppress the vote.
Make your contribution in his name, and honor him by working to get out the vote in your area.
If someone tells you that voting doesn’t matter, just say, “It mattered to Medgar.” And see if they know who he was.