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Medgar Evers

Medgar Wiley Evers
July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963
Notable: Activist
Nationality: American

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Medgar Wiley Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi the third of his parents, Jesse and James Evers, four children. Growing up in the South during Jim Crow meant that Evers and other local Black children received inadequate resources to support their education. For example, White children were provided with bus transportation for their commute to school. Meanwhile, Evers had to walk for miles while enduring verbal harassment and physical attacks from the students who rode the buses. Evers was an avid reader who remained a diligent student despite his school having overcrowded classes, a shortage of teachers, outdated textbooks, and limited facilities.

At the age of 14, Evers witnessed the public torture and murder of his father’s friend, Willie Tingle. Tingle was accused of insulting a White woman for which he was dragged, shot, and hanged in retaliation. His bloody and tattered clothing was left hanging near the site of the lynching which Evers and other members of the Black community had to walk past for several months. These memories would stay with Evers for the rest of his life.

A few years later, as World War II was raging, Evers joined the army and served in a unit that was tasked with delivering supplies to the frontlines. Despite joining the war effort and putting his life on the line like all the other soldiers, Evers still had to contend with racism and segregation within the military. He was discharged in 1946 and returned home with multiple medals as well as a goal of bringing about change in America.

Evers had followed his older brother Charles (to whom he was very close) into the military and now back at home, the pair decided to join the next phase of the “Double V” campaign. The initiative called for Black servicemen to fight for a victory against tyranny at home and abroad. Thus Evers and his brother became a part of the very early Civil Rights Movement.

One of their first initiatives was a voter registration campaign. The 15th Amendment had theoretically granted Black people the right to vote after the end of the Civil War. But with the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow and White supremacist terrorism were used to intimidate and oppress Black people. Suppressing the Black vote in the South was a key tactic for continuing the oppression of Black people.

Evers, Charles, and a group of other veterans successfully registered to vote at the local city hall in 1946. But when they arrived at the polls on election day, the group was turned away by an angry White mob. In keeping with the suppression of Black people’s civic rights, conditions for Black people remained unimproved in other areas as well. Facing limited employment prospects, Evers enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University).

At Alcorn, Evers performed well in class and became actively involved with various on-campus activities. After graduation, Evers settled in Mound Bayou with his new wife, Myrlie Beasley, whom he had met and married while they were both students at Alcorn. Mound Bayou had historically been a primarily Black town and Evers began working in the area as an insurance salesman. Once again taking up the mantle of activism, Evers joined the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL). Under Evers’ leadership as president, the group organized a boycott of gas stations that barred Black people from using their bathrooms.

Later inspired by Brown v. Board of Education, Evers applied at the University of Mississippi Law School in 1954. Unsurprisingly, he was denied admission and appealed to the NAACP for assistance. The NAACP took on the case and while it proved unsuccessful, the initiative helped lay the groundwork for the later campaign to help James Meredith enroll. Evers’s collaboration with the NAACP brought him to the attention of the organization’s regional leadership and resulted in him being selected as Mississippi’s first field secretary.

The NAACP’s field secretary position required its occupant to travel throughout their territory in support of campaigns. Evers and his family relocated to Jackson from which he visited various parts of the state to create new chapters, increase membership, and drive voter registration. He also led boycotts of businesses that discriminated against Black people and organized protests in efforts to desegregate public schools, parks, and beaches.

In his position as a field secretary, Evers led independent investigations into crimes committed against Black people properly. In many cases, law enforcement did not protect against violence and would often fail to investigate crimes committed against Black people. In some of the worst cases, members of law enforcement aided or actively participated in crimes against Black people.

Evers led investigations into nine murders, at least three of which occurred in 1955. They included the cases of Rev. George Lee, Clinton and Beulah Melton, and most notably Emmett Till. Media and public relations would become important in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and Evers was early in utilizing these tools to bring attention to cases and issues that might have otherwise gone ignored.

In the case of Till, he not only contributed to efforts to publicize the lynching but also assisted with the management of witnesses. He helped track down witnesses and kept them safe until it was time for them to testify. For one witness, Evers and the morgue used a casket to hide the witness as he was safely transported out of town.

Evers’ activities resulted in him having a solid presence in Mississippi but his rising notoriety also brought negative attention. In the spring of 1963, he announced plans for Black people in Jackson to begin organizing protests and rallies in response to the mayor’s refusal to take proper action against the city’s structural racism. Evers had faced threats of violence since becoming an activist and multiple attempts were made on his life. In May of 1963, the home he lived in with his family was firebombed but fortunately, nobody was hurt. The Evers family had to contend with harassing phone calls and the family implemented best practices to remain safe at home.

Late on the evening of June 12, 1963, Evers returned home from a meeting and parked in his driveway. His wife and children had stayed up waiting for him to return home. They heard him exit the car and begin to walk up the driveway to the front door. Suddenly, a shot rang out and Evers was struck in the back by the bullet from a rifle. Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist, had positioned himself a mere 150 feet away to take a sniper shot at Evers. Upon firing the bullet, Beckwith dropped his weapon and ran leaving Evers to drag himself to the front door where he collapsed and was found by his family.

Medgar Evers was rushed to a hospital but died an hour after being shot due to the severity of his injury and its resulting blood loss. A funeral was held in Jackson but Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. In death, Evers was awarded the Spingarn Medal and a city community college was established in his honor in Brooklyn, New York. Evers’ murder contributed to the passage of 1964’s Civil Rights Act. And in addition to other honors and awards, the Evers home in Jackson became a National Historic Landmark in 2016.

Beckwith was quickly identified as a suspect and his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon when it was located. Multiple witnesses stated that they had seen Beckwith in the area around the time of the murder. Yet, Beckwith maintained his innocence and tried to explain away the evidence by claiming the gun had previously been stolen and he had people who would verify his alibi of having been somewhere else. Beckwith received support from various public figures including the then-Governor. He was arrested but two all-White juries were deadlocked which allowed him to go free.

Evers’ wife, Myrlie continued the fight to get justice for his murder. Finally, three decades later, Beckwith was once again indicted and a new trial with a jury consisting of eight Black and four White people found him guilty. In February 1994, with Beckwith now in his 70s, he was sentenced to life in prison where he died about seven years later at 80 years old. Medgar Evers had been a mere 37 years old at the time of his murder and left behind his wife and three young children.

Sources

  1. Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Medgar Evers.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. April 23, 2021. https://www.biography.com/activist/medgar-evers.
  2. Davis, Dernoral. 2022. “Medgar Evers.” Zinn Education Project. May 10, 2022. https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/evers-medgar/.
  3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Medgar Evers.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. June 28, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Medgar-Evers.
  4. “Evers, Medgar Wiley.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Stanford University. May 21, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/evers-medgar-wiley.
  5. “Medgar Evers Murdered.” 2021. SNCC Digital Gateway. September 24, 2021. https://snccdigital.org/events/medgar-evers-murdered/.
  6. “Medgar Evers.” 2021. NAACP. May 11, 2021. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/medgar-evers.
  7. VA History Office. 2022. “Veterans Affairs.” VA.gov. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. March 23, 2022. https://www.va.gov/HISTORY/Features/032_Evers.asp.

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