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Medgar Evers
July 2, 1925– June 12, 1963
Civil Rights Activist


Medgar Wiley Evers was a murdered African-American civil rights activist from Mississippi.

Medgar Evers was born July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi. His parents were Jessie, a devout Christian, and James Evers, the owner of a small farm and a sawmill worker. Evers' father, also known as "Crazy Jim," and his maternal great-grandfather were two men that also fought for their freedom. Evers was the third of four children, Charles, Elizabeth, and Mary Ruth being the youngest. There was also Eva Lee and Gene (which were Jessie’s children from a prior marriage). He was determined to get the education he deserved, and he did just that as quickly as possible. After the lynching of a family friend, Evers walked twelve miles to and from school to earn his high school diploma. In 1943 was inducted into the army with his older brother Charlie. Evers fought in France, the European Theatre of WWII and was honorably discharged in 1945 as a Sergeant. In 1946, Evers, along with his brother and four friends, returned to his hometown.

In 1948, Evers enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), majoring in business administration. In college, he was on the debate team, played football and ran track, sang in the school choir and served as president of his junior class. It was here that he was listed in Who’s Who in American Colleges for his many accomplishments.

He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on December 24, 1951, and received his BA degree the following year. Myrlie Beasley and Medgar Evers had three children, two boys and a girl.

Activism

The couple moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where T. R. M. Howard had hired him to sell insurance for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Howard was also the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization. Involvement in the RCNL gave Evers crucial training in activism. He helped to organize the RCNL's boycott of service stations that denied blacks use of their restrooms. The boycotters distributed bumper stickers with the slogan "Don't Buy Gas Where You Can't Use the Restroom." Along with his brother, Charles Evers, Medgar also attended the RCNL's annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1954 which drew crowds of ten thousand or more.

Evers applied to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954. When his application was rejected, Evers filed a lawsuit against the university, and became the focus of a NAACP campaign to desegregate the school, a case aided by the United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 that segregation was unconstitutional. That same year, due to his involvement, the NAACP's National Office suggested he become Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP.

NAACP Field Secretary

On November 24, 1954, Evers was appointed Mississippi’s first field secretary. President of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference and civil rights activist, E.J. Stringer, helped him gain this position.

Evers was involved in a boycott campaign against white merchants and was instrumental in eventually desegregating the University of Mississippi when that institution was finally forced to enroll James Meredith in 1962.

The admission of Meredith led to a riot on campus that left two people dead. Evers’ involvement and investigative work brought about hatred in many white supremacists. In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself even more of a target. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard made him a prominent black leader and therefore vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home. Five days before his death, Evers was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.

Assassination

On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after just returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that read "Jim Crow Must Go," Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from an Enfield 1917 .303 rifle that ricocheted into his Jackson, Mississippi home. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing. He died at a local hospital 50 minutes later, just hours after President John F. Kennedy's speech on national television in support of civil rights.

Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors in front of a crowd of more than three thousand people.

On June 23, 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the White Citizens' Council and Ku Klux Klan, was arrested for Evers' murder. During the course of his first trial in 1964, De La Beckwith was visited by former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and one time Army Major General Edwin A. Walker.

All-white juries twice that year deadlocked on De La Beckwith's guilt.

The murder and subsequent trials caused an uproar. Musician Bob Dylan wrote his 1963 song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" about Evers and his assassin. The song's lyrics included: "Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king." Nina Simone took up the topic in her song "Mississippi Goddam". Phil Ochs wrote the songs "Too Many Martyrs" and "Another Country" in response to the killing. Matthew Jones and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers paid tribute to Evers in the haunting "Ballad of Medgar Evers." Eudora Welty's short story "Where is the Voice Coming From," in which the speaker is the imagined assassin of Medgar Evers, was published in The New Yorker. Even Rex Stout used the event as a plot device in his civil rights themed mystery A Right to Die.

Malvina Reynolds mentioned "the shot in Evers' back" in her 1964 song "It Isn't Nice" , and in 1965, Jackson C. Frank included the lyrics "But there aren't words to bring back Evers" in his tribute to the civil rights movement, "Don't Look Back," on his only, self-titled, album.

In 1994, 30 years after the two previous trials had failed to reach a verdict, De La Beckwith was again brought to trial based on new evidence, and Bobby DeLaughter took on the job as the prosecutor. During the trial, the body of Evers was exhumed from his grave for autopsy, and found to be in a surprisingly good state of preservation as a result of embalming.[2] De La Beckwith was convicted of murder on February 5, 1994, after having lived as a free man for the three decades following the killing. De La Beckwith appealed unsuccessfully, and died in prison in January 2001.

Legacy

40 years after his death, hundreds gathered around the grave site of Medgar Evers at Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate his life and legacy. Three students - Sharmistha Dev, Jajah Wu and Debra Siegel, and their teacher, Barry Bradford of Adlai E. Stevenson High School, which is located just outside of Chicago, held the commemoration in his honor. Evers was the subject of the students' research project.

Evers's widow, Myrlie, became a noted activist in her own right later in life, eventually serving as chair of the NAACP. Medgar's brother Charles returned to Jackson in July 1963 and served briefly in his slain brother's place. Charles Evers remained involved in Mississippi Civil Rights for years to come. He resides in Jackson.

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