Evers, Medgar (2 July 1925 - 12 June 1963), civil rights activist, was...

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Evers, Medgar (2 July 1925 - 12 June 1963), civil rights activist, was born Medgar Wiley Evers in Decatur, Mississippi, the son of James Evers, a sawmill worker, and Jessie Wright, a domestic worker. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served in the invasion of Normandy and the French campaign. After the war ended Evers returned to Mississippi, where he attended Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, a segregated land-grant institution, from which he graduated in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. While at Alcorn he met a nursing student, Myrlie Beasley (MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS), whom he married in 1951; the couple had three children.

After graduating from Alcorn, Evers spent several years working as a traveling salesman for the Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company, a business founded by, run by, and serving African Americans. His extensive travels through impoverished areas of Mississippi made him aware of the terrible poverty and oppression suffered by many black southerners and led him to become an active volunteer in the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP. His skill and enthusiasm did not pass unnoticed by the organization’s leadership, and in 1954, after Evers’s application to the University of Mississippi Law School was rejected on racial grounds, he was appointed to the newly created and salaried position of state field secretary for the NAACP, in Jackson.

Evers’s duties as field secretary were originally bureaucratic--collecting, organizing, and publicizing information about civil rights abuses in Mississippi. However, his anger, aroused by the refusal of southern authorities to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 decision against segregation of public institutions, led him to more direct forms of action, sometimes to the dismay of the generally more conservative NAACP leadership. Evers did not shy away from high-profile activities; he helped to investigate the death of EMMETT TILL, a teenager murdered allegedly for having whistled at a white woman, and he served as an adviser to JAMES MEREDITH in his eventually successful quest to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi.

Evers’s more aggressive style of leadership became evident in the early 1960s, when he helped to organize the Jackson Movement, an all-out attempt to end segregation in Mississippi’s largest and most densely black-populated city. Throughout 1962 and 1963 Jackson’s African-American residents, under Evers’s leadership, struggled for racial justice, focusing on the issues of integration of public schools, parks, and libraries and the hiring of African Americans for municipal offices and on the police force. Evers’s tactics, which included mass meetings, peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, and economic boycotts of segregated businesses and of the state fair, helped to unify Jackson’s black community. His energy and diplomacy helped to resolve conflicts and create unity between radical youth groups and the more conservative organizations of middle-class adults and also attracted the participation of some moderate white Jackson residents. However, Evers’s actions were perceived as antagonistic by many other white Jacksonians.

Shortly after midnight on 12 June 1963 Evers returned to his home after a Movement meeting and was ambushed in his driveway and shot to death. News of the murder spread rapidly through Jackson’s black community, and a riot was narrowly averted. Evers was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and the NAACP honored him posthumously with its 1963 Spingarn Medal.

A Federal Bureau of Investigation probe of Evers’s murder led to the arrest of Byron de la Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman, avowed anti-integrationist, and member of a long-established Mississippi family. Beckwith was tried for the crime, but, despite the testimony of several witnesses who claimed that they had heard the accused boast of having shot Evers, he was found not guilty by an all-white jury. A retrial ended in the same verdict. In February 1994, however, a third trial, this time by a racially mixed jury, ended in Beckwith’s conviction for Evers’s murder and a sentence of life imprisonment.

Although his career as a political activist and organizer was cut short by his death, Medgar Evers became and has remained an important symbol of the civil rights movement. The brutal murder of a nonviolent activist shocked both black and white Americans, helping them to understand the extent to which areas of the Deep South tolerated racial violence. Evers’s death was a crucial factor that motivated President John F. Kennedy to ask the U.S. Congress to enact a new and comprehensive civil rights law, an action that committed the federal government to enforcement of policies to promote racial equality throughout the United States. Evers’s name has remained alive through the efforts of the NAACP’s Medgar Evers Fund, which provides financial assistance for efforts to improve housing, health care, education, and economic opportunity for African Americans. A branch of the City University of New York was named Medgar Evers College in 1969. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, served as interim president of the national NAACP in 1995.

Further Reading

Bailey, Ronald. Remembering Medgar Evers (1988).
Evers, Charles. Evers (1971).
Evers-Williams, Myrlie, and William Peters. For Us the Living (1967).
Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (1994).
Salter, John R. Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979).
Vollers, Maryanne. Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trial of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South (1995).
Obituary: New York Times, 13 June 1963.

Natalie Zacek

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