by Michael Vinson Williams
The problem with martyrs, regrettably, is that it is their fate to be remembered more for their death than for their life. Medgar Evers became known to the nation because of his murder rather than for his civil rights activism in Mississippi, his death perhaps most famously memorialized in the heartbreaking Life magazine cover of his widow, Myrlie Evers, trying to comfort their young son Darrell at his funeral. It has become one of the iconic photographs of the Civil Rights Movement.
Evers was shot in the driveway of his home with a high-powered rifle fired by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith at 12:20 a.m. on June 12th 1963. According to the police report, the bullet went through his body, crashed through a window of the house, and was deflected by the refrigerator onto the kitchen countertop where it placidly came to rest. His wife Myrlie and children had been waiting up for him as he returned from a late-night Civil Rights meeting. They were anxious to discuss with him the nationally televised speech President Kennedy had delivered to the nation earlier in the evening, one in which he had finally committed his administration to civil rights for African Americans and a major civil rights bill. Upon hearing the shot, the family rushed out to find Evers on the ground, blood-soaked, struggling, and unable to speak. Neighbors transported Evers to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead a short time later. Later in the day, investigating officers found--in the woods across the street from the Evers home--an Enfield rifle with a scope, hidden beneath a honeysuckle vine. There was one latent fingerprint on the scope.
De La Beckwith was charged with the murder of Medgar Evers, but in the early 1960s, white men didn’t get convicted of killing black men in the state of Mississippi, however compelling the evidence; so it came as some surprise that the all-white jury did not return an expected acquittal. The first trial resulted in a hung jury and mistrial. De La Beckwith was tried again; the second trial also resulted in a hung jury and mistrial. It was thought that a conviction could not be obtained, and prosecutors did not try the case again. In 1989, a report by an investigative reporter established links between a state agency, The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, and De La Beckwith’s defense team in his second trial, focusing on the role the commission had played in advising the defense concerning juror selection. The publicity sparked a new interest in seeking justice, and De La Beckwith was charged with murder for a third time. After long years of legal maneuvering and delay, De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers.
That is the short story of the death of Medgar Evers and the attempt to bring justice to his killer. This is not, however, the major focus of Williams's book. Williams wants to tell us about the life of Evers, to make us understand what an extraordinary individual he was, the importance of his work in Mississippi, and its ramifications for the national movement for civil rights. He does this effectively in several ways: He explains to us the origins of Evers's commitment to civil rights in his early family life, military service, and college years. After a few years working in insurance sales, Evers got a job as the Mississippi field representative of the NAACP. A major part of that job was to document civil rights abuses in the state, and those early investigations and field work were important formative experiences. We get a sense from these accounts of what he was facing in Mississippi, and Williams puts Evers's work in Mississippi in context with national events. He looks at several major events in the Civil Rights Movement that occurred before 1963, and shows how they connected to Mississippi and Evers’s organizing efforts, voter registration drives, and other goals. This gives the reader an understanding of both Evers’s work and of the changing nature of the Civil Rights Movement during these years.
Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book is the insight this history gives us about the politics of the Civil Rights Movement during these turbulent years. We tend in retrospect to look at the movement as one unified cause marching on a single chosen road, and that was not the case at all. The NAACP preferred legal rather than direct action techniques in fighting for civil rights for African Americans. This approach, which many found slow and laborious (and often temporizing), was challenged by groups less patient and more demanding of immediate action, groups composed of students and younger African Americans who made up the membership of such groups as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). And there were challenges as well from Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCL) for control of the movement in Mississippi.
The internecine battles remind us of the difficulties associated with any action for significant political change. It was Evers's job to try to coordinate the actions of these groups in his state, to be the diplomat and peacemaker between warring factions. It put tremendous pressure on him, but as Williams shows, these were challenges that made manifest his extraordinary talent and character. For most of his civil rights career, Evers was the organization builder, the grassroots coordinator, the one who met with sharecroppers, students, and ministers and managed the workaday details of the fight. While he was certainly known to activists inside and outside of the state, he only became more publicly visible when he responded in May of 1963 on television to the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi regarding issues faced by blacks in Jackson and throughout the state. It was this increased notoriety that made him a chosen target and put his life in even greater danger.
Williams’s major achievement in Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr is that he gives us a profile of both a man who was extraordinary and at the same time profoundly representative of the aspirations that drove the Civil Rights Movement. In a state that was the most violently racist and intractable in the nation, Evers's life of personal courage, his persistence and commitment in trying to break the bondage of fear in the African American community, are things that make him worthy of our admiration and remembrance. He knew what he was facing, and he knew the probable cost. He was willing to pay it. His murder remains a part of the manifest catalogue of violence in Mississippi, an event that was presaged by the lynching of Emmett Till and the murder of voting rights activists as well as the violence over James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi, and was followed by the murder of civil rights workers during the “Freedom Summer” of the following year and the shooting of James Meredith during his “March Against Fear.” The deaths and violence were important at the time in that they made evident to the nation the virulence of racism and the need for change. But the more abiding connection to us all is not Medgar Evers's death, but rather his life. It was a life that exemplified his commitment to freedom. As Martin Luther King remarked when Evers was killed, “America has lost one of those pure patriots whose paramount desire was to be an American and to live as an American.” That is the story Michael Williams tells us here, and it is what makes Evers a vital inspiration as the nation continues to pursue, after all these years, the struggle for racial justice that is still before us.