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Medgar Evers was a man who lived with no fear

On June 12, 1963, one of Mississippi’s greatest leaders of the 20th century, was gunned down in his front yard in Jackson.

Medgar Wiley Evers was that leader. Evers was a man of leadership, integrity, passion and dedication for the cause of equal rights for African Americans.

The son of a farmer and domestic worker, Evers was born July 2, 1925, in Decatur.

In 1943 enlisted in the U.S. Army with his older brother Charles Evers (who would later help lead one of the most successful boycotts in the state of Mississippi, in the city of Natchez).

Medgar Evers fought in France during the European Theater of World War II and was honorably discharged in 1945 as a sergeant.

Despite fighting for his country, Evers soon found that his skin color gave him no freedom when he and five friends were forced away at gunpoint from voting in a local election. Nevertheless Evers loved Mississippi and returned from overseas with a commitment to steer his home state toward civilization.

Evers enrolled at Alcorn State University, majoring in business administration.

He married classmate Myrlie Beasley on Dec. 24, 1951, and completed work on his degree the following year. The couple moved to Mound Bayou, where T.R.M. Howard had hired him to sell insurance for his Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Evers 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.

Evers attempted to apply to the then-segregated University of Mississippi Law School in February 1954.

In late 1954, Evers was named the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi. His civil rights leadership and investigative work made him a target of white supremacists. Hostility directed towards him grew. His public investigations into the murder of Emmet Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard made him a prominent black leader not only in Mississippi, but nationally.

Five days before his death, he was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office. Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first week of June 1963.

A local television station granted Evers time for a short speech on air, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on his life increased.

On the morning of June 12, 1963, around 12:20 a.m., Evers arrived home from a long meeting at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church. He 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. Myrlie heard the shot, ran outside with the children behind her, and saw Evers lying face down in the carport. 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. He died shortly after 1 a.m. of blood loss and internal injuries.

In the initial police investigation, a rifle, which was thought to have fired the fatal shot, was discovered approximately 150 feet from Evers’ carport. Mourned nationally, Evers was buried on June 19 in Arlington National Cemetery, where he received full military honors before a crowd of more than 3,000.

On June 22, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, was arrested and charged with killing Evers. Beckwith was tried twice for Evers’ 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, in February 1994 before a jury of eight blacks and four whites, 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 Jan. 21, 2001.

Despite the loss of Evers’ 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.

The Rev. Matthew Jones in his song, “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” wrote, “In Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, there lived a man who was brave. He fought for freedom all of his life, but they laid Medgar Evers in his grave.”

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, it’s important to remember that Medgar Evers was a man who truly lived with no fear.

 

Jeremy Houston is a Natchez native who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years.