This weekend, thousands will be commemorating the life of Medgar Evers. Hopefully, millions more will remember his death and his importance to Jackson, to Mississippi, and to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans. As usual, Councilman Kenneth Stokes will sponsor one of the largest such commemorations of him in the country.
Although the writer has heard no complaints, some people, especially younger ones, have wondered why so many things have been named in his honor, including the airport, the main post office, a major street, a library, and a museum. The reason, of course, is because he was a “larger than life” personality during his time as Field Secretary of the Mississippi Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He heroically carried the torch when few others dared speak up. Evers became so widely known and influential around the country until by the time the writer enrolled in the University of Washington, there was a Medgar Evers swimming pool in Seattle, Washington. There was also a Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn that was a part of the City University of New York. Across the country other symbols of national recognition had cropped-up.
As an impressionable freshman student at Jackson State College, this writer, along with his roommates, Fred McDowell and Charles Ralph Morris, first met Medgar Evers at the M.L.S. Drug Store on the corner of Lynch and Dalton Streets in the Summer of 1960. They were struck by how humble or down to earth he was. They were in no way special, yet he took the time to get to know them and treat them as if they were. He was impressive in his sheer determination to break-down the barriers of racial segregation and discrimination in Jackson and the rest of Mississippi. He was impressive in how clearly and intelligently he presented himself and his plans. Even these brand-new freshmen understood and bought into it. In every way, Evers was gentle and intelligent, as well as determined and courageous.
Needless to say, not just these three students, but many others from Jackson State College and neighboring Campbell College worked with him as did many from Tougaloo College. Although that may not be where Joyce and Dorie Ladner got there start as full-time activists, Evers certainly accelerated their efforts. They worked closely under his mentorship. It is also from him that James Meredith, Cleve McDowell, Johnny Frazier, Clyde Kinnard, and many others gained advice and support as they attempted to desegregate state institutions of higher learning. It is from him that the Tougaloo Nine derived much of their motivation and support.
By the time the trio of roommates met Evers, he had already been risking life and limb as a civil rights leader for nearly a decade. He, along with Aaron Henry, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Dr. Gilbert Mason, Amzie Moore, and others, had in fact been threatened on numerous occasions in the late 50s and early 60s. They literally lived through hell, toiling in Mississippi during those days, often having to travel back roads, wear disguises, and carry weapons or bodyguards. Their homes and workplaces were monitored. Their families were threatened. (That is a major reason why Medgar Evers’ children attended Christ the King Catholic School and Aaron Henry’s daughter attended Immaculate Conception Catholic School.) These civil rights activists were at risk from white civilians and law enforcement officials. These were unusually courageous heroes.
As a result of how vocal, how influential, and how effective Evers was, the writer was saddened, but not surprised, when just three weeks after graduating from Jackson State he heard the news that Evers had been assassinated. It was a sad day for Black people all over the state.
Like hundreds of others, the writer made his way on the Greyhound bus to Jackson to the Masonic Temple, where the funeral was to be held. Because the building was so full, he and a friend, Albert Newsome, made their way around to the back of the building and climbed an unused ladder and crawled into an open space near the ceiling, ending up directly above the stage and Evers’ casket, but out of sight of the funeral attendees. From there they witnessed the entire funeral. Evers meant that much to them as Black students and citizens.
In the state of Mississippi, Evers’ imprint expanded from the Delta to the Gulf Coast, from Jackson to the eastern and southwestern parts of the state. He was truly Mississippi’s field secretary for the NAACP.
In addition to his work in helping organize college and youth chapters of the NAACP, he did valuable investigative work designed to overcome the legal barriers to segregation and to expose racist behavior. He led numerous boycotts and marches against racial segregation and discrimination, including several against the Mississippi State Fair, which was not only segregated but was utilized as a fundraiser for segregationist terror groups. He had even filed papers for admission to Ole Miss Law School as the basis of a test case for the NAACP.
Over the years, Evers was associated directly with the investigative and court work of Mamie Till, whose son Emmett Till was murdered in 1955. He supported Dr. Gilbert Mason and the wade-ins on Biloxi beach. He had helped Dr. T.R.M. Howard organize the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. He was a partner with Winston Hudson in the desegregation of Leake County schools. He worked with Amzie Moore in the boycotting of gas stations that refused to allow Black customers to use their toilet facilities. He and Henry Kirksey worked together building a case against public school discrimination. These are just a few of the efforts in which he was involved.
Evers brought to the state many lawyers and celebrities who were about the business of destroying racial segregation and discrimination, including Dr. Martin Luther King; baseball player Curt Flood, whose lawsuit led to the practice of free agency for professional athletes; attorney Thurgood Marshall, who had led the argument in the Brown vs. Board of Education; UN Ambassador Ralph Bunche, who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize; and Judge Constance Baker Motley, among others. Although he was an advocate of non-violent protests, he left no stone unturned when it came to trying to improve race relations and to promote Black progress in Mississippi.
Over the years, many have built upon the work that he did. Even more have benefitted from that work. He accomplished a great deal, especially when one considers the environment of Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s.
During the 1950s and 60s, civil rights workers were often not just threatened, but beaten, arrested, and even killed for the work that they did. Often when Evers appeared on television giving a speech or an interview, the station would be sure to announce ahead of time that his appearance was not live, but taped hours earlier, in order to avoid any attacks on him or the station. They were dark days. They were days wherein public school teachers were forbidden to discuss race relations or support the idea of desegregation. A contemporary slogan often seen on car tags and television read, “Mississippi, the most lied about state in the nation.” The slogan was referring to the state’s racist reputation, which of course had been earned by the conduct of so many of its racist people over the years. Despite the tough times, Evers stood tall through it all, until that hateful day, June 12, 1963, when he was gunned down by Byron de la Beckwith.
When we look back over his life, we realize how blessed we were to have known him. Medgar Evers was a man among men that this writer shall never forget. His greatness was evident in his personality and in the work that he did in his 37 years on earth.ally