Medgar Evers was one of the early pioneers of civil rights in the Deep South in the early 1960s. Born and raised in the dark back waters of the Klan dominated Mississippi were segregation had a cement like grip on the community and fear of white reprisal was so thick you could feel it in the Delta air, his one man crusade against the heavily entrenched Jim Crow in Jackson became his mission in life. He threw caution to the wind to advance his cause but his burning devotion would ultimately cost him his life.
Evers joined the army in 1943 and fought in Europe against Hitler’s totalitarian empire. Much like the black veterans who returned home from France after WWI, Evers came home to find that blacks were still treated like second class citizens despite their tremendous sacrifices while the French treated blacks as equals. He dreaded going back to Mississippi but the germ of equality that his military experience taught him was spreading and his rigidly instilled sense of responsibility forced him back towards hellish quagmire of Mississippi to slay the dragon of segregation.
The Evers family stood out in Decatur as witnessed by the family pedigree. Evers grand-father had once killed two white men and quickly fled before the Klan could pick up his trail. A family freind had been lynched by local Klansmen, his blood caked clothes hung out on a fench for a year as a warning to Decatur blacks not to step out of line. Evers father also had a stubborn streak, refusing to honor a southern custom of stepping off the side walk and bowing his head when a white person approached. Naturally the son carried these same headstrong traits but was both miffed and angered at local blacks who enforced long standing segregation by obeying the Jim Crow attitudes.
The plight of impoverished blacks the prehistoric Mississippi Delta further awakened Evers sense of equality. These were the born poor, career poor, race poor. One room shacks without windows or doors, children without shoes walking around in pig-pen like muck much less anything of substance to eat.
"We cannot say to 10 percent of the population that you can't have that right; that your children can't have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go into the streets and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that."
- JFK civil rights speech, June 11, 1963
Within hours after President Kennedy's encouraging speech, Medgar Evers was dead. Just after midnight, a weary Evers pulled into his driveway, anxious for a few hours of sleep before beginning another daily grind. Existing his car with his back to the street, the unmistakable echo of a high caliber rifle echoed through the night air. The bullet, well aimed, entered Evers back and ripped through his heart. The former college football player had just enough strength left to stagger to the front door were he collapsed from extreme blood loss.
Evers, a man who had borne witness to and was himself subject to innumerable indignities because of his color, had one last outrage to endure. The hospital staff refused him entry because of his color. Only when it was made known who he was and the potential embarrassment to the hospital if they rested on formality, was he admitted to emergency. The damage to the heart was too massive and Evers never regained consciousness. The civil rights movement had lost one of its most heroic soldiers but the aftershock of his death provided significant impetus to propel Mississippi out of the dark ages and into the light.
Only a Pawn in the Game
Words & Music by Bob Dylan - 1964
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game
Bullet hole in window of Evers home bares mute testament to the tragedy that took the life of one of the civil rights movements most heroic soldiers. Evers Oldsmobile still sits where he left it moments before the end. Evers was due to testify in front of a House Judiciary Committee in regards to civil rights legislation that day. This was the final domino that got him killed.
After Evers funeral at the Masonic Temple, community leaders had ask for and received permission from the city to conduct a peaceful march back from the temple to the Collins funeral home on Farish Street. The city complied under the condition there was no singing or shouting of slogans. The senior leaders agreed and the march was completed but this last insult proved too much for the rebellious youngsters. Coupling this with the insensitivity of the police department towards the funeral and the two groups were ready to square off.
The sudden realization that the pillar of the community was now gone seemed to galvanize the youngsters. Searching for an outlet for their grief and anger, they began a march aimed right at the wall of police barricading Farish Street. In defiance of the order, young marchers started singing and chanting and were in turn greeted with billy clubs by the police who had been shadowing the march. With the two groups staring each other down, police with guns drawn while armed blacks peered over building tops awaiting the first shot. With a riot teetering on the first false move, justice department lawyer John Doar entered no man's land with outstretched arms and pleaded with the marchers to stand down. Miraculously they did and a further travesty was averted but Mississippi would never be the same again.
By 1963 the end was near for Evers. His endless desire to champion the civil rights cause in Mississippi had catapulted him into the national spotlight. Seen here with Lena Horne, celebrities were now recognizing his heroic efforts but so was the local Klan who blamed him for attempting to dismantle their segregationists supremacy and vowed to hold him accountable.
In 1954, Evers applied to the University of Mississippi, which, despite the recent court order to desegregate from the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, they refused. Evers applied for admission as a test of the ruling. He would later council James Meredith into successfully being admitted. Evers moved to Jackson in 1954 and, still feeling the sting of the Ole Miss rejection, became a volunteer for the local NAACP. His strong work ethic propelled him into becoming the field secretary and his cause celebre became the desegregation of Jackson, a daunting if not impossible task. Being field secretary made him the face of civil rights in Mississippi and public enemy number one for the racist segregationists.
Jackson was the states capital, the Birmingham of Mississippi. Jackson was a veritable maze of Jim Crow signs instructing blacks where the could go and where they could not. The cops were not necessary to enforce the Jim Crow "laws" as the locals took great relish in administering "justice" to any malefactors.
Jackson Mayor Allen Thompson believed in enforcing the laws as well as segregation.
With less than two weeks to live, Evers (with End police brutality sign) and Roy Wilkens (head of NAACP) protest outside the infamous Woolworths in Jackson. Note the officer on the right with the electric cattle prod at the ready.
By the summer of 1963 Evers would command the growing ire of the Klan. He had re-opened the failed Emmett Till case from the 1950's and was successfully finding witness' willing to testify. The Till lynching of 1955 in Money, Mississippi, one of the most publicized in history, ended in an acquittal and opened a wound in the state that would never heal. The killing of Till put Mississippi for the first time into an embarrassing national spotlight which began to shed an accusative light on the endless racial inequities that had been occurring there for decades. While blacks were still bent on justice for the martyred Till, local whites wished to bury the subject once and for all. Evers desire to re-open the Till case, coupled with his determination to desegregate Jackson, made him a marked man. A month before his death, someone threw a well-aimed Molotov cocktail into his carport. Shortly thereafter, a friend notified him of an anonymous tip that his enemies would shortly be gunning for him.