|Medgar Evers is reported to have|
said, "You can kill a man, but you
can't kill an idea."
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|
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|
|The family beds on the floor|
"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|
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.
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.