“The gifts of God … should be enjoyed by all citizens in Mississippi.” — Medgar Evers
When we think of the tumultuous ’60s and the assassinations that shocked and stunned the nation, President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy are often recalled in great detail.
Even the assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on Feb. 21, 1965 gets discussed more than that of Medgar Wiley Evers, the Mississippi field secretary who was gunned down in his driveway on June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Miss.
Yet it was Evers’ assassination that kick-started the trend in the ’60s where the best way for cowards to end the life of freedom fighters was with a bullet.
Although he didn’t command the national stage like the Kennedys, King and Malcolm X; Medgar Evers is just as important to the fight for civil rights in America because as the NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi, he was fighting Jim Crow, racism and bigotry in the most virulently racist state in the nation.
Imagine a son of Mississippi joining the U.S. Army and fighting for his country in World War II, coming home with the rank of sergeant, only to discover that the real enemy to democracy and freedom were white Americans who hated his skin color with the same venom as Hitler.
Because of the threats to their lives, whether financially or physically, many blacks in Mississippi were scared to challenge the white power structure. Black folks in the state fared worse than anywhere else in the country, and for white business and political leaders in Mississippi, that was just fine.
How nasty was white hatred in Mississippi? When national TV networks aired programming featuring Black entertainers, TV sets in the state would go dark. Television executives in Mississippi didn’t even want to see Blacks sing, dance or act.
It was against that backdrop of nasty racism that Medgar Evers pledged his life — literally — to change.
He led protests against gas stations that excluded blacks from using restrooms, and years before James Meredith won his battle to enroll at the University of Mississippi, it was Evers, in 1954, that applied to the Ole Miss Law School. Naturally, he was denied.
When Emmett Till was savagely lynched in 1955, Evers was a leading voice in demanding a real investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice.
What is most important for all of us to remember is that Medgar Evers could have easily waited for someone else to be a change agent. But he was a proud man who couldn’t stand to see Mississippi maintain this way of life.
And with the actions of a coward like Byron De La Beckwith, his children didn’t.
On the night President Kennedy delivered a historic speech on civil rights, Evers was attending an NAACP meeting. When he got out of his car holding “Jim Crow, Must Go” t-shirts, a shot rang out, hitting Evers in the back. He staggered to his front door, only to see his wife and children rush out.
At a wreath laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination, his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, says it pained her greatly for her children, especially their youngest, Van, who was 3 at the time, to have to witness such carnage.
Evers-Williams says the pain of remaining in the home led to her packing up their belongings and taking her children to California.
“We could no longer live in our home,” she told the Associated Press. “The memories were just too vivid, and I could never get all of the blood up off of the concrete driveway.”
Although the pain of Evers death remains 50 years later, Myrlie and her two surviving children are the driving forces behind the Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute, which is designed to carry on the ideals by which he lived, as well as the work she continued after his death.
Every American — black and white — should know and understand that without the hard work and sacrifice of people like Medgar Evers, this country would have never changed. He may have lived only 38 years, but he maximized those years to force America to live up to its stated ideals.
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Roland S. Martin is host and managing editor of TV One Cable Network’s “Washington Watch” and senior analyst for the Tom Joyner Morning Show, where he is heard daily.