Medgar Evers

It was 56 years ago this month that Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers was shot dead in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi after returning home from a meeting at a local church. The World War II veteran had been the NAACP’s choice for field director for the state of Mississippi from 1954 until his murder in 1963.

In addition to leading this premier civil rights organization’s work in his home state, Medgar Evers was an African-American who tirelessly fought racism was an orator extraordinaire, and visionary for change. We will highlight this warrior and his works this month.

Medgar, the third of four children, was born in July, 1925 in Decatur, MS. His father, James, worked in a sawmill and his mother, Jesse, was a laundress. Evers’ parents showed their children immense love and affection and taught them family values. Like so many southern families of that time, his parents emphasized education, religion, and hard work as values to uphold.

Evers attended segregated schools in Newton County, Mississippi. While those schools were separate, they were anything but equal. The schools were crowded and had few teachers, hand-me-down books were the norm. The classes were large and there were no laboratories or adequate supplies with which to study the sciences. While Evers’ parents and older siblings attempted to protect him from the horrors of living Black in the Jim Crow South, he still on occasion saw and witnessed acts of brutality against blacks. One such incident occurred when he was about 14-years-old. Evers observed a Black man, Willie Tingle, being dragged behind a wagon through the streets of Decatur. He was later shot and hanged. Tingle was a friend of Evers’ father, who 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 reminder of brutal violence and the image would forever stay with him.

A few months shy of turning age 18, Evers completed the 10th grade and decided against returning to a school that had unequal and inadequate resources. Instead, he joined the United States Army and in 1942, he was inducted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. Like his school, like his town, and like Mississippi, the army was segregated. Evers was assigned to and served with an all-Black port battalion, first in Great Britain and then later in France. To be an American and have to fight in a war that was segregated further angered Evers.

By the war’s end, Evers was among a generation of black veterans committed to answering W.E.B. Du Bois’ 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’ conviction that the status quo in Mississippi had to change.

Evers had been reared to value education and to see it as the path to success, so he spent the next decade preparing to become that vanguard for change in his home state. Using his military GI Bill (educational benefits earned by members of the armed forces to assist eligible veterans and their family members to cover the costs of higher education or job training), he returned to school to complete his education. In 1946, he enrolled at Alcorn A&M College in Lorman, Mississippi, where he had the good fortune of having his brother, Charles, as his roommate. 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.

It was in college that he met his wife to be, Myrlie Beasley, an education major from Vicksburg, Mississippi. They married on 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.” [1]

During his years at Alcorn, Evers was a hard worker who enjoyed reading and participated in a number of extracurricular activities. He joined the debate team, the business club, football team, and he 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 he was named to Who’s Who Among American College Students.

By attending college, Evers had the opportunity to be exposed to and enjoy 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 last year of college 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.

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 blacks 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. His 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. [1]

The leadership prospects for Evers only increased when he volunteered to become the first black applicant to seek admission to the University of Mississippi. University and state officials reacted to Evers’ 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.

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’ 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. In 1960, the couple had another son, James. Once in Jackson, a new NAACP office was secured 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 to be a source of frustration and created tremendous anxiety 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 blacks and from 1955 to 1960, Evers faced a range of daunting challenges. He investigated nine race-related murders and countless numbers of alleged maltreatment cases involving black victims.