Studio portrait of slain American civil rights activist Medgar Evers (1925 – 1963) early 1960s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
By: Lawrence Ware, the Grio
On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, Jr. in Jackson, Mississippi.
Just like April 4, 1968, the date that MLK was assassinated, and February 21, 1965, the day that Malcolm X was assassinated, June 12, 1963 is a date we should remember. Every year, there should be a flood of social media posts honoring Evers and the sacrifices of his wife, Myrlie. We should revere his children Darrell, James and Reena for what they gave for the cause.
But that doesn’t happen. There is no yearly remembrance. We rarely mention his name. Medgar is never given the appreciation he deserves. We are saddened that he lost his life, and we use his death as proof of how evil white supremacists were in the South, but it ends there. He deserves more.
I teach a class about the civil rights movement at Oklahoma State University. It centers on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. While we focus on them, I also discuss many other thinkers — Stokely Carmichael, Shirley Chisholm and Ida B. Wells. When we get to Medgar, I am always met with silence. Not because the students revere him — because they know nothing about him.
We have to do better. We must tell his story.
Medgar Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi on July 2, 1925. After getting his high school diploma, he served in the Army from 1943 to 1945 eventually attaining the rank of sergeant. He is an American hero. A man the country should be proud of, especially since he participated in the Normandy landings in 1944.
My grandfather, who was also in the Army at the same time, used to tell me that he knew Evers. That they met in the Army. He was never able to show me pictures of the two of them together, but I do know that my grandfather also participated In the Normandy landings, so I guess it’s possible. As a kid, I chalked it up to an old man telling tall tales about his time at war, but the similarity between their two stories stuck with me. It was a reminder that there were many people who served their country proudly, but the America they found when they returned did not treat them kindly.
After returning home from his time abroad, Evers found a Mississippi that said he had to drink from water fountains labeled “Coloreds only.” Incensed, he joined the civil rights movement, eventually becoming Mississippi’s first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — and they put him to work.
He was involved in James Meredith’s attempts to integrate the University of Mississippi; he supported Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr.’s “wade-ins “in Biloxi, protests against segregation of the city’s public beaches; and Evers held a public investigation into the lynching of Emmitt Till. These actions angered white folks who did not want things to change, so they resisted him in increasingly violent ways.
Someone threw a Molotov cocktail in Ever’s carport in May 1963. Then in June of the same year, a car tried to run him down as he left an NAACP office in Jackson. His phone constantly rang with death threats, a tactic that white supremacists would use again with King and Malcolm X a few years later.
Early on the morning of Wednesday, June 12, 1963, as Evers was returning to his home after a late meeting with NAACP lawyers, he was shot in the back by De La Beckwith with an Eddystone Enfield 1917 rifle — the bullet passed through his heart. His wife found him and rushed him to a hospital in Jackson, which refused to admit him initially, but eventually gave in after they explained who he was — proving that an average Black man’s life was not worth saving in 1960s Mississippi. You had to prove to white folks you were special.
He died that night. He was 37. He would have turned 38 in three weeks.
Everyone knew that De La Beckwith Jr., a fertilizer salesman and member of the racist Citizen’s Council and the infamous Klu Klux Klan, did it. He did not admit to it, but he did not pretend he was innocent either. He was prosecuted twice by the district attorney, but since Black folks were not allowed to vote, and, therefore, could not serve on juries in that state, he had all-white juries. For some reason, they were never able to reach a verdict. But Myrle Evers never gave up on her husband’s case. In 1994, 30 years after the murder, she was finally able to hold Beckwith accountable. After a lengthy legal battle, he was found guilty of killing Evers and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2001 at the age of 80.
The story of Evers is the story of the way this country treats people whose skin is kissed by the sun. It teaches us that no matter how much a person sacrifices for America if they inhabit the wrong skin, they can be shot down like a dog in the street — and it will take years to achieve justice.
Every time there is a Trayvon Martin or James Byrd or Ahmaud Arbery or Sandra Bland, I never expect justice. I think of Emmitt Till. I think of Medgar Ever. Yes, those happened in the 1950s and 1960s, but they taught me that white people can take Black life with impunity.
Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes we get justice. But when we don’t, I am never shocked. This is, after all, America.
But we can at least remember Medgar Evers. He deserves that much.
Today, we honor him.