Saturday, April 22, 2017

Remembering Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers is reported to have
said, "You can kill a man, but you
can't kill an idea."
My time in Jackson wasn't all fun and games. Mississippi, of course, played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. Jackson was home to Medgar Evers, the NAACP's first regional field secretary. He was shot in his driveway on June 12, 1963 by a white man who opposed Evers' work on behalf of African-American equality. Evers died later within the hour.

Evers' home is now owned and operated as a National Historic Landmark by Tougaloo College. I toured Evers' home with curator Minnie Watson. It was a sobering experience.

Ms. Watson shared Evers' story with me as we stood in his living room. Evers grew up in Decatur, Mississippi in the 1920s and '30s, a time of "outright, in-your-face segregation." His introduction to the facts of life as an African-American came at an early age. As a child, he played with other kids in the neighborhood, both black and white. But by the time he had become a teenager, the dynamic had changed. No longer was it acceptable for Medgar to hang out with his white friends. To add insult to injury, Jim Crow etiquette mandated that he call his boyhood chums "Mister" and "Miss."

The Evers Family
Evers was also exposed to violence at an early age. Before he was 12, Medgar had seen two lynchings. One victim was his father's friend. The other was a ten year old boy who had snuck into a state fair on a "whites only" day. (The fair was open to blacks only at the end of its run after many of the rides had been dismantled.)  After the victim's body was removed, his clothes remained hanging as a reminder to blacks to stay in their place.

At 16, Evers joined the Army and went off to WWII, where he fought in the Normandy invasion. Upon his return home, he finished high school, went to college, and began selling insurance. His solicitations took him to plantations where he saw first hand the abject poverty in which the workers lived. He began talking to them about the value of education and voting rights, urging them to join the NAACP. His work came to the organization's attention, and he was appointed field secretary in 1954.

"Medgar" by T.M. Dossett
Evers' work required him to move his family to Jackson. They built a home on what is now Margaret Walker Alexander Drive, a street on which houses were being constructed for middle class African-Americans. (The adjacent streets were populated by whites.)  Knowing his role as a civil rights advocate put him and his family at risk, Evers chose a lot nestled between two other homes rather than the more desirable--and more exposed--corner lot. Medgar made two modifications to the house plans to enhance his family's safety. The window sills were raised two inches to provide additional coverage in the event of drive-by shootings. And instead of a front door, entry to the Evers' home was through a side door that could be quickly accessed from the carport after exiting the family car.

Evers' concerns were warranted. On three separate occasions, shots were fired through the front windows of the home. While no harm came to the family, Medgar and his wife Myrlie took some additional precautions.The family's beds were dismantled, and they slept on mattresses on the bedroom floors. The children were taught to drop and crawl to the bathroom when they heard shots fired.

The family beds on the floor
On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made an address to the nation in which he announced that he would be introducing civil rights legislation. Kennedy's words included the following:

"The heart of the question is whether all American are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Byron De La Beckwith
I don't know if Byron De La Beckwith heard President Kennedy's speech. But I do know that later that same evening, Beckwith lay in wait for Medgar in a yard catercorner to the Evers' house. Medgar returned home shortly after midnight and pulled into the driveway behind his wife's car. He went to the trunk to retrieve a box of t-shirts labeled "Jim Crow Must Go." Beckwith saw his opportunity and fired a single shot from a high powered hunting rifle. The bullet blew through Medgar and into the Evers' home, where it ricocheted around the kitchen before coming to rest on the counter. A neighbor who heard the shot fired his own gun into the air in hopes of scaring the shooter off. Myrlie yelled at the children to get into the bathroom and ran outside to find Medgar bleeding in the driveway. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died.

It didn't take long for the police to identify Beckwith as the killer. The evidence included the gun he had left behind and a number of cigarette butts from his brand of smoke. But two trials in 1964 resulted in hung juries. Not surprisingly, both juries were composed exclusively of white men. At one trial, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett was seen by the jury shaking hands with Beckwith. 

Beckwith did not go unpunished, however. The investigation was reopened in the 1980s after journalists had uncovered new evidence, including numerous boasts by Beckwith about the killing. In 1994, more than 30 years after Medgar Evers' death, Beckwith was convicted of first degree murder. He died in prison.
Minnie Watson
But the story doesn't end there. Beckwith's son visited the Evers' home several years ago. He had called Ms. Watson first to ask whether he would be permitted in. While you might think this would indicate some remorse about his father's actions, he did not express such sentiments during his visit. Instead, he talked about how his father had been accused of many things he had not done. Ms. Watson responded that she wouldn't be surprised if this were true, since Beckwith was quite vocal about his opinions. I admire her grace and composure.

I'm glad to have had the opportunity to learn about Medgar Evers' life and death while standing in his home. It was a powerful experience, and I urge anyone traveling to Jackson to make their own visit.

To read more about Medgar Evers, click here. For a virtual tour of the Evers' home and more information, click here.To watch or read Kennedy's speech in its entirety, click here.

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