In the History Corner… On the eve of the assassination of Medgar Evers

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The Evers house at 2332 Margaret Walker Alexander Drive, now the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, where Medgar Evers was fatally shot after getting out of his car.

Residents in the City of Jackson and the State of Mississippi generally know that Medgar Evers was assassinated on the night of June 12, 1963. Many can remember where they were or what they were doing. (The writer was in the process of writing letters to the 100+ school districts in the state, trying to land a teaching job when the news was telecast.) Many can remember statements from other leaders at the time, including those of the national office of the NAACP, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, and the major civil rights organizations around the country.

In early 1963, many white leaders were in an uproar and were doing many things to stir up the white population in general. Since the summer of the lynching of Emmett Till, the White Citizens Council had funded and promoted license plates that read, “Mississippi was the most lied about state in the nation.” The state legislature had created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission to “investigate” and report on civil rights activities in the state. Local news outlets reported news of civil rights activities in such a manner as to demonize the actions and the activists. There is no wonder that Evers was frequently threatened, as was Dr. Aaron E. Henry, as was Dr. T.R.M. Howard, and as were many other civil rights activists, both Black and white, during that time.

As a result of being whipped into a frenzy, even as Medgar Evers addressed the community on television, the station put out a message letting the public know that the speech had been recorded earlier and that Evers was not at the station at that time. The atmosphere was charged with the threat of racial violence. 

Evers was aware, as were others, that white terrorists were out to kill them if they continued to be such strong advocates for racial change. Racial animosity appears to have intensified since Brown vs. Board of Education. Southern leaders in particular had felt that they and their “way of life” were under siege by the federal government. The latest thing to which they pointed was President John Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address to the nation the night before Evers’ assassination.

On the night of June 11, 1963, after a great deal of pressure from the civil rights community, as well as his brother Robert Kennedy, President Kennedy decided to address the country on the matter of civil rights, proposing what eventually became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That speech and the context into which it was put greatly encouraged Black citizens, especially those who were active in the movement. On the other hand, it riled-up segregationists even more.

Mississippi had become such an anti-Kennedy hot-bed until the state legislature had already re-drawn its congressional lines in such a way as to prevent the re-election of Representative Frank Smith, a liberal Democrat who enthusiastically supported Kennedy and who had frequently written and spoken-out against racial segregation and discrimination since his days as a high school journalist. Mississippi, along with Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and other localities in the south, continued to vie to be the champion for racial segregation and virulent Jim Crow activities under the banner of states’ rights, or as Mississippi governor Ross Barnett used to say, “the great sovereign state of Mississippi.”

On the eve of the assassination of Medgar Evers then, John Kennedy was heard and viewed in Mississippi voicing the sentiments that had been advocated by Evers and others for several years before his election. It seemed to white southerners that he had become a civil rights champion.

Kennedy began the speech by talking about the federal actions that had recently been required to desegregate the University of Alabama. He quickly pointed out that public institution, such as the University of Alabama, should not deny admission to any student because of race, that no citizen should be denied service at a facility open to serve the public because of his race, and that all citizens regardless of their race should have equal access to the ballot box.

He quoted statistics to show how segregation and discrimination handicapped Black people, including hampering their ability to fully develop their talents and skills. He posed the question of who would be willing to have the color of their skin changed and would stand in the place of Black people under those conditions. He thus went on to stress the fact that America would not be free until all of its citizens are free and to stress the importance of that message to the world at large as well as citizens in the country. He explained how the federal judiciary had acted in several civil rights cases and how the executive branch had taken certain actions to advance civil rights. He then pointed out that it was now time for Congress to act. The action which he was proposing would outlaw segregation in public accommodations, would provide more federal involvement in lawsuits to desegregate public education, and would offer more protection for Black people exercising the right to vote.

He closed the speech by re-emphasizing the fact that America must become one country, one wherein Black citizens would enjoy the benefits of all other Americans without having to resort to legal actions or protests in the streets. He indicated that Black citizens are encouraged to obey the law, but that the laws must be fair and color blind.

To many southerners and others who had grown accustom to power and privilege based upon their white skins, the words of Kennedy in that speech sounded like the death-nail to their status and position. After all, as president Kennedy was in charge of the executive branch, the Democrats were in charge of the legislature and the federal judiciary seemed in step with where Kennedy was leading the country. It is no wonder that Byron de la Beckwith may have been egged-on to assassinate the likes of Medgar Evers. Undoubtably, there were others who would just as willingly have assassinated Kennedy as John Wilkes Booth had Abraham Lincoln one hundred years earlier as the outcome of the Civil War was changing the “way of life” of an earlier generation of George Wallaces and Ross Barnetts.

Think about it, the Kennedy civil rights speech on the eve of Medgar Evers’ assassination perhaps contributed in no small way to the frenzy that saw Beckwith acting the very next night. 

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In the History Corner… On the eve of the assassination of Medgar Evers

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 5, 2023