Welcome to Black History 365, a series where I explain, educate, and explore, historical events, unsung black figures in world history and recount the struggles and triumphs of black people worldwide. In this entry I’ll be presenting the story of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Medgar Evers was an African American civil rights activist whose murder drew national attention. Born and raised in Mississippi, he would as a young adult join World War two before going to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After he attempted to desegregate the University of Mississippi Law School in 1954, he became the NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. Evers became a target and subject to threats as the most visible civil rights leader in the state. This would unfortunately end with him being shot to death in June 1963. Even though accused, the killer Byron De La Beckwith escaped conviction. However, the discovery of new evidence decades later resulted in Beckwith’s retrial and imprisonment.
Evers was born on July 2nd, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. He grew up in a farming family and would enlist in the United States Army in 1943. He fought in both France and Germany during World War two before being receiving an honorable discharge in 1946. Two years later he entered Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Lorman, Mississippi. During his senior year, Evers married a fellow student Myrlie Beasley. They went on to have three children: Darrell, Reena, and James. Upon graduation from college in 1952, he moved to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he went on to work as an insurance salesman. He and his older brother, Charles Evers also worked on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), organizing local affiliates in Philadelphia.
His Fight Against Discrimination
It was in 1954 when the Supreme court’s decision Brown v. Board ended segregation of schools, and the same year Medgar quit the insurance business. He would subsequently apply and was denied admission to the law school of The University of Mississippi. His unsuccessful effort to integrate the state’s oldest public educational institution attracted the attention of the NAACP’s national office. Later that year, Evers would move to the state capital of Jackson and became the first state secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi.
During his tenure as a state field secretary, Evers recruited members throughout Mississippi and organized voter – registration efforts, demonstrations, and economic boycotts of white-owned companies that practiced discrimination. His second job consisted of investing crimes in the state perpetrated against blacks, notably the murder of Emmett Till.
Tragic Death and Aftermath
In early 1955, Evers activism made him the visible and recognizable civil rights leader in the state of Mississippi. As a result, he and his family were targeted by numerous threats and violent actions over the years, one of them being a firebombing of their house in May 1963. His racist detractors capitalized on their violent acts by murdering him on June 12th, 1963. At 12:40 A.M. On June 12th, 1963, Evers was in the back in the driveway of his home in Jackson. He died less than an hour later at a nearby hospital.
Evers was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, and the NAACP posthumously awarded him their Spingarn Medal. President John F. Kennedy and many other leaders publicly condemned his killing. Ever’s murder led to national outrage which increased support for legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers brother Charles would be his successor and continue his work after the NAACP appointed him Evers position. Charles Evers went on to become a major political figure in the state, and in 1969 he was elected the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, becoming the first African American mayor of a racially mixed Southern town since the Reconstruction Era.
The conflict over segregation surrounded the two trials that would follow Evers death. Beckwith the alleged killer of Evers received the support of some of Mississippi’s most prominent citizens, even the then racist Governor Ross Barnett, who would appear at Beckwith’s first trial to shake hands with the defendant in full view of the jury. As a result, in 1964, Beckwith was set free after two all-white jurors deadlocked.
After Beckwith’s second trial, Evers wife Myrlie Evers moved with her children to California, where she earned a degree from Pomona College and was later named to the Los Angeles Commission of Public Works. She was convinced that her husband’s killer was not brought to justice, which prompted her to continue to search for new evidence in the case.
In 1989, the question of Beckwith’s guilt was again raised when a Jackson newspaper published accounts of the files of the now-defunct Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which was an organization that existed during the 1950s to help raise support for the maintenance of segregation. Accounts went on to show that the commission had helped lawyers for Beckwith screen potential jurors during the first two trials. Furthermore, a review by the Hinds County District Attorney’s office found no evidence of such jury tampering, but one thing that was discovered there was a number of new witnesses, including several individuals who would eventually testify that Beckwith had bragged to them about the murder.
In December 1990, Beckwith was again indicted for the murder of Medgar Evers. As a result, after a number of appeals, the Mississippi Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the third trial in April 1993. Ten months later, testimony began before a racially mixed jury of eight blacks and four whites. In the past white jurors usually came up with a verdict of not guilty for white perpetrators, for example the Till case which was an all-white juror and many others. The results were always biased. In February 1994, nearly 31 years after Evers’ death, Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He would die in January 2001 at the age of 80.
In 1995, Myrlie Evers – Williams was elected chairwoman of the board of directors of the NAACP. She is now remarried and lives in Oregon and currently a member of the board’s executive committee.
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