Mississippi became a major theatre of struggle during the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century because of its resistance to equal rights for its Black citizens. Between 1952 and 1963, Medgar Wiley Evers was perhaps the state’s most impassioned activist, orator, and visionary for change. He fought for equality and fought against brutality.
Born July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi, Medgar was one of four children born to James and Jesse Evers. His father worked in a sawmill and his mother was a laundress. Evers’s childhood was typical in many ways of African American youths who grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the years preceding World War II. As a youth, Evers’s parents showered him with love and affection, taught him family values, and routinely disciplined him when needed. The Evers home emphasized education, religion, and hard work.
Among his siblings, Evers spent the most time with Charles, whom he idolized. As Evers’s older brother, Charles protected him, taught him to fish, swim, hunt, box, wrestle, and generally served as a sounding board for many of Medgar’s early experiences. He attended all-Black schools in the dual and segregated public educational system of Newton County. Segregated public education meant long walks to school for the Evers children. The schools had few resources and operated with outdated textbooks, few teachers, large classes, and small classrooms without laboratories and supplies for the study of biology, chemistry, and physics.
Besides his under-funded public education, Evers on occasion saw and witnessed acts of raw violence against African Americans. On these occasions, Evers’s parents and older brother could not shield him from the realities of a society built on racial discrimination. At about age 14, Evers observed to his horror the dragging of a Black man, Willie Tingle, behind a wagon through the streets of Decatur. Tingle was later shot and hanged. A friend of Evers’s father, Tingle was accused of insulting a white woman.
Evers later recalled that Tingle’s bloody clothes remained in the field for months near the tree where he was hanged. Each day on his way to school, Evers had to pass this tableau of violence. He never forgot the image.
A World War II soldier
At the end of his sophomore year of high school and several months before his eighteenth birthday, Evers volunteered and was inducted into the United States Army in 1942. The decision to volunteer was prompted by a desire to see the world and to follow Charles, who had enlisted a year earlier. During his tour of duty in World War II, Evers was assigned to and served with a segregated port battalion, first in Great Britain and later in France. Though typical at the time, racial segregation in the military only served to anger Evers. By the end of the war, Evers was among a generation of Black veterans committed to answering W. E. B. Dubois’s clarion call of nearly three decades earlier: “to return [home] fighting” for change.
Upon returning home, the initial “fight” for Evers was to register to vote. For Evers voting was an affirmation of citizenship. Accordingly, in the summer of 1946, along with his brother, Charles, and several other Black veterans, Evers registered to vote at the Decatur city hall. But on election day, the veterans were prevented by angry Whites from casting their ballots. The experience only deepened Evers’s conviction that the status quo in Mississippi had to change.
A college student
Evers spent the next decade preparing to become part of the vanguard for change in Mississippi. He returned to school to complete his education under the military’s GI Bill, which was passed by Congress in 1944 to provide education to people who had served in the armed forces during World War II.
In 1946, he enrolled at Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Mississippi, where he roomed with his brother Charles. At Alcorn, which had both high school and college courses of study, Evers first completed high school and remained to pursue a college degree with a major in business administration.
While in college, Evers met and courted Myrlie Beasley, an education major from Vicksburg. They were married Christmas Eve 1951. Myrlie remembers her initial impressions of Evers as a well-built, self-assured veteran and athlete. Soon afterward she realized he was a “rebel” at heart. “He was ready,” Myrlie recalls, “to put his beliefs to any test. He [even] saw a much larger world than the one that, for the moment, confined him; but he aspired to be a part of that world.”
During his years at Alcorn, Evers enjoyed reading and worked hard to pass all classes. Participation in extracurricular activities remained Evers’s real passion from his freshman year through his senior year. As a freshman he joined the debate team, the business club, played football, and ran track. As a junior he was elected president of his class and vice president of the student forum. By his senior year he had become editor of the Alcorn Yearbook, the student newspaper, the Alcorn Herald, and was named to Who’s Who Among American College Students.
The decision to attend college afforded Evers critical exposure and experiences that contributed to his development as an emerging activist and eventual leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. A crucial experience occurred during his senior year when each month he drove to Jackson to participate in an interracial seminar jointly sponsored by then all-White Millsaps and all-Black Tougaloo colleges. It was at one of the interracial seminars that Evers became aware of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he subsequently joined.
An insurance agent
After Evers’s graduation, he and Myrlie moved to the all-Black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he began work as an insurance agent for the Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company, selling life and hospitalization policies to African Americans in the Mississippi Delta. The insurance company was owned by Dr. T. R. M. Howard, a Black physician in Mound Bayou and a political activist. It was largely because of Howard’s influence that Evers, from 1952 to 1954, not only traveled his Delta route selling insurance, but organized new chapters of the NAACP. The NAACP organizing travels convinced Evers that Jim Crow rendered the state a virtual closed society and that mobilizing at the grassroots level was essential for building a movement for social change. Increasingly, too, Evers saw himself in the vanguard to put an end to Mississippi’s infrastructure of segregation. Other people in the still-young Mississippi Civil Rights Movement also began thinking of Evers as a leader.
The leadership prospects for Evers only increased when he volunteered to become the first African American applicant to seek admission to the University of Mississippi. University and state officials reacted to Evers’s January 1954 application for admission to the law school in Oxford with alarm and sought to handle the matter with dispatch. His application was rejected on the “technicality” that it failed to include letters of recommendation from two individuals in the county (Bolivar) where he lived at the time.
NAACP state field secretary
The law school application soon catapulted Evers from relative obscurity to broader name recognition and to serious leadership consideration within the emerging state Civil Rights Movement. E. J. Stringer, president of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference, was so impressed with Evers’s leadership potential that he recommended him for the newly created position of state field secretary of the civil rights organization. The National Office of the NAACP voted in favor of Stringer’s recommendation.
In December 1954, Evers’s appointment as state field secretary was officially announced. The new position required that Evers move from Mound Bayou to Jackson and establish an NAACP field office. Evers negotiated with the NAACP National Office for Myrlie to be appointed as the office’s paid secretary. The Medgar Evers family, which now included two children, Darryl Kenyatta and Reena Denise, came to Jackson in January 1955 – the couple in 1960 had another son, James Van Dyke. Once in Jackson a residence for the family was quickly secured followed by the selection of the new NAACP office in the business hub of the local Black community on North Farish Street. Evers relocated the field office ten months later to the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street.
When Evers assumed his position as state field secretary, he began an eight-year career in public life that was both demanding and frustrating. The 1950s proved frustrating and anxiety-laden as some White Mississippians responded with massive resistance to the civil rights activities of the NAACP and to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. There was widespread racial violence against African Americans and from 1955 to 1960, Evers faced a range of daunting challenges. He investigated nine racial murders and countless numbers of alleged maltreatment cases involving Black victims during the period.
And, Evers’s organizing efforts on behalf of the NAACP proved just as demanding. He worked to promote the growth of adult-lead chapters and to encourage involvement of younger activists in local youth councils across the state. The inclusion of youth, Evers believed, was critical to a winning strategy in the crusade against Jim Crow. In several areas of the state – Jackson, Meridian, McComb, and Vicksburg most notably – youth councils emerged and were quite active. Statewide membership in NAACP chapters nearly doubled between 1956 and 1959 from about 8,000 to 15,000 dues-paying activists.
In the 1960s the agitation for civil rights grew more radical and diverse in its protest strategies. The dominant protest strategies became direct action with civil disobedience, such as boycotts against White merchants. Evers had only limited knowledge of these protest strategies but willingly embraced them to advance the struggle.
On the morning of June 12, 1963, around 12:20 a.m., Medgar Evers arrived home from a long meeting at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church located at 2464 Kelley Street. He had watched President John Kennedy's speech earlier that evening after George Wallace's Stand in the Schoolhouse Door. Medgar got out of his car, arms filled with “Jim Crow Must Go” T-shirts, and walked toward the kitchen door when a shot was fired from a high-powered rifle, striking Evers in the back. When Myrlie and the children heard the shot, the children crawled military-style to the bathroom as they were taught by their father. Myrlie screamed when she saw her husband lying face down in the carport. Then the children emerged from hiding and begged their father to "wake up, Daddy." Next-door-neighbor Houston Wells heard the shot and called the police. The police arrived only minutes later and provided an escort as Wells drove Evers to the emergency room of the University of Mississippi Medical Center on North State Street. Evers died shortly after 1:00 a.m. of loss of blood and internal injuries.
In the initial police investigation, a rifle, which was thought to have fired the fatal shot, was discovered in a thicket of honeysuckle approximately 150 feet from Evers’s carport. White leaders publicly expressed shock and regret. Governor Ross Barnett called the shooting a “dastardly act.” On behalf of the city, Mayor Allen Thompson offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of the shooter and added that he was “dreadfully shocked, humiliated and sick at heart.”
The day after Evers’s death, several demonstrations broke out in the local Black community in reaction to the murder. Black ministers and businessmen joined other angry Black people as they surged out into the streets. Jackson police used force to stop the demonstrations.
On June 15, 1963, Evers’s funeral was held at the Masonic Temple, with Charles Jones, Campbell College chaplain, officiating the service. A special permit was obtained from the city in anticipation of a large funeral cortege and march from the site of the services to Collins Funeral Home. The permit prohibited slogans, shouting, and singing during the funeral procession. After the service about 5,000 mourners joined the procession from the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, east to Pascagoula, then north onto Farish to the funeral home. When the cortege reached the funeral home, approximately 300 young mourners began singing and moving south in mass toward Capitol Street, the main street of the capital city. The police, who had been shadowing the cortege, responded to mourners by using billy clubs and dogs to disperse them. The crowd then began hurling bricks, bottles, and rocks. A potentially deadly incident was averted when several civil rights workers, and John Doar, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, beseeched the mourners to stop, which they soon did.
The loss of Medgar Evers was a serious blow to the civil rights struggle across the state. Gone were his imposing presence, compelling oratory, and committed leadership. In a mere eight years, Evers had advanced the civil rights struggle in Mississippi from a fledgling organization to a formidable agent for change. His death was the first of a civil rights martyr, and it led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Medgar Evers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Despite the loss of Evers’s leadership, the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement forged ahead. The remaining years of the 1960s saw the emergence of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (1964), Freedom Summer (1964), James Meredith’s March Against Fear (1966), and other protests for racial equality.
On June 22, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, was arrested and charged with the slaying of Medgar Evers. Beckwith was tried twice for Evers’s murder, first in February and later in April 1964. Both trials (before all-White male jurors) ended in hung juries. Beckwith was not retried for the Evers murder until 30 years later. In a two-week trial, held in February 1994 before a jury of eight African Americans and four White people, Beckwith was found guilty of the murder of Evers, for which he received a life sentence. Beckwith served only seven years of his life sentence at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Rankin County before dying of a heart attack January 21, 2001.
Dernoral Davis, Ph.D., is chairman of the history and philosophy departments, Jackson State University.
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National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). M is for Mississippi and Murder. New York: NAACP, 1955. This NAACP publication was based on the investigations of Medgar Evers, the newly appointed field secretary for the civil rights organization in Mississippi. The pamphlet provided details on three racial murders in 1955. The three victims were George W. Lee of Belzoni, Lamar Smith of Brookhaven, and Emmett Till, a 14-year-old teenager from Chicago who was visiting his grandfather in Money, Mississippi. At least ten other Black men were racial murder victims during the 1950s in Mississippi.