Friday, February 15, 2013
The First Civil Rights Martyr
Medgar Wiley Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi on July 2, 1925; dying the victim of a racially motivated assassination on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi after attending a rally. He was the third of four children of a small farm owner who also worked at a nearby sawmill. His social standing was impressed upon him every day but Evers was determined not to cave in under such pressure. He once said his mission was evident at the age eleven or twelve when a close friend of the family was lynched.
He walked twelve miles each way to earn his high school diploma and joined the Army during the Second World War. Perhaps it was during the years of fighting in both France and Germany for his and other countries' freedom that convinced Evers to fight on his own shores for the freedom of blacks. After serving honorably in the war he was discharged in 1946, he began working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1952. Evers travelled throughout the state of Mississippi trying to encourage voter registration and worked tirelessly to enforce federally mandated integration laws.
On 12 June 1963, hours after President John F. Kennedy gave a televised speech condemning segregation, Evers was shot in the back by a high-powered rifle while returning home. He crawled to the house and collapsed in front of his wife and three children; he died an hour later. The rifle found at the scene belonged to Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the all-white Citizens' Council, a statewide group opposed to racial integration akin to the KKK.
Beckwith was tried twice but nearly thirty years later, thanks to the persistence of Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the case was reopened and Beckwith was tried and convicted in 1994, and the conviction was upheld by the state supreme court in 1997. Evers-Williams published “For Us, The Living in 1967”; Beckwith's trial was the basis for the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi that starred Whoopi Goldberg.
Medgar Evers position in the civil rights movement was that of field secretary for the NAACP and recognized as one of the first martyrs of the civil rights movement. His death prompted President John Kennedy to ask Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the following year.
The Mississippi in which Medgar Evers lived was a place of blatant discrimination where blacks dared not even speak of civil rights, much less actively campaign for them. Evers, a thoughtful and committed member of the NAACP wanted to change his native state. He paid for his convictions with his life, becoming the first major civil rights leader whose death was called an assassination.
Evers was featured on a nine-man hit list in the Deep South as early as 1955. He and his family endured numerous threats and other violent acts, making them well aware of the danger surrounding his activism. Still he persisted in his efforts to integrate public facilities, schools, and restaurants. He organized voter registration drives and demonstrations. He spoke eloquently about the plight of his people and pleaded with the all-white government of Mississippi for some sort of progress in race relations. To those people who opposed such things, he was thought to be a very dangerous man.
In some ways, the death of Medgar Evers was a milestone in the hard-fought integration war that rocked America in the 1950s and 1960s. While the assassination of such a prominent black figure foreshadowed the violence to come, it also spurred other civil rights leaders, also targeted by white supremacists, to new fervor. They, in turn, were able to infuse their followers with a new and expanded sense of purpose; one that replaced apprehension with anger.
Evers must have also had a sense that his life would be cut short when what had begun as threats turned increasingly to violence. A few weeks prior to his death, someone threw a firebomb at his home. Afraid that snipers were waiting for her outside, Mrs. Evers put the fire out with the garden hose. The incident did not deter Evers from his rounds of voter registration or from his strident plea for a biracial committee to address social concerns in Jackson. His days were filled with meetings, economic boycotts, marches, prayer vigils, and picket lines and with bailing out demonstrators arrested by the all-white police force. It was not uncommon for Evers to work twenty hours a day.
The NAACP posthumously awarded its 1963 Spingarn medal to Medgar Evers. It was a fitting tribute to a man who had given so much to the organization and had given his life for its cause. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Medgar Evers's story lies in the attitudes of his two sons and one daughter. Though they experienced firsthand the destructive ways of bigotry and hatred; Evers' children appear to be very well-adjusted individuals. Myrlie Evers remarked that "it has taken time to heal the wounds [from their father's assassination] and I'm not really sure all the wounds are healed. We still hurt, but we can talk about it now and cry about it openly with each other, and the bitterness and anger have gone."
As a fitting tribute, Evers was interred at Arlington National Military Cemetery in Washington DC. How many of you are willing to give your life for something greater than yourself? And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…