Code Switch
6:04 am
Wed June 5, 2013

Fifty Years After Medgar Evers' Killing, The Scars Remain

Originally published on Wed June 5, 2013 9:20 am

For Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the memories of 1963 are still raw.

Her family lived in terror behind the locked doors of their Jackson, Miss., home — a modest, three-bedroom, ranch-style house in one of the first new subdivisions built for African-Americans in Mississippi's segregated capital city. A back window in the tiny kitchen frames the backyard where Evers-Williams once grew rose bushes and a plum tree.

The family moved to Jackson when Evers accepted a job as the NAACP's first field secretary in the South — a job that made him a target of the white supremacists who would stop at nothing to preserve Jim Crow.

"Medgar became No. 1 on the Mississippi 'to kill' list," Evers-Williams says. "And we never knew from one day to the next what would happen. I lived in fear of losing him. He lived being constantly aware that he could be killed at any time."

The house was firebombed. The kitchen phone rang constantly with threats. Scars from the attacks still remain today.

Finally, just after midnight on June 12, 1963, a bullet struck Medgar Evers as he pulled into the driveway. Inside the house, the Evers' three young children heard the gunfire.

Reena Evers-Everette, just 8 years old at the time, says they immediately acted out the emergency drill their family had practiced time and time again: dropping to the floor alongside her brother Darrel, pulling down their younger brother, Van, and going into the tub in the bathroom.

"And then," she says, "we stopped and ran down the steps and begged our father to get up."

They found him on the carport, in a pool of blood, shot in the back.

The murder made the national news. It was yet another report of the brutal response to civil rights activists in the South. Just a month before, police in Birmingham had turned fire hoses and police dogs on young protesters.

The violence in 1963 grabbed the nation's attention and galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act.

Evers had been laying the groundwork for nearly a decade by then. In his role as field secretary for the NAACP, he traveled the state — registering voters, organizing boycotts of segregated businesses, and encouraging activists not to be intimidated. He also tried to lift what his widow calls the "cotton curtain" that had kept the violence in Mississippi hidden from the rest of the nation. One of his first NAACP assignments was investigating Emmett Till's murder in 1955.

"Mississippi is a race-haunted place," says Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

"It took grass roots — women and children and men — to lead the effort for social change, and it was much harder in Mississippi than other places. And that story needs to be told. It's not just this easy, Martin stood up and Rosa sat down and everybody's free."

From the state archives in Jackson, where Medgar Evers' life's work is on display, Glisson says he painstakingly documented every murder, beating, firebombing or other act of violence in Mississippi. "He would interview people, collect photographs when he could and share that information with the NAACP and widely. So there couldn't be this sense of denial, that folks were happy and that nothing was happening that was retaliatory for civil rights activity."

Glisson says Evers' strategy of attacking Jim Crow from the ground up expanded the role of the NAACP, which had been mainly focused on legally dismantling the infrastructures of racism.

Julian Bond, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalls the debate within the larger civil rights movement: "Could you attack segregation in a place like Mississippi from within? Or did it have to be attacked from without? ... You've got to go right to the heart of the beast. And Medgar Evers was the first person to do that."

Bond, on a recent trip to Jackson, was amazed to see the airport bearing Medgar Evers' name, and downtown signs with Evers' picture announcing the 50th anniversary events.

"I marvel sometimes at the changes," he says. "And of course it's easy to say it's not enough, 'cause it's not enough. There are still things to be done. But I think of the way this state — Mississippi — was 50 years ago, and the way it is now. The change is just enormous. I mean I used to be afraid when I drove through Mississippi. I'm not afraid now. I'm going to drive through Mississippi day after tomorrow to Alabama. I'm not afraid to go to Alabama anymore."

But the change was slow to come. It was 30 years after the killing before a Mississippi jury convicted Evers' assassin — white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. And it took even longer for the state to fully embrace Evers' legacy.

Over the next week, Evers will be honored with a series of events culminating in Jackson next Wednesday — the 50th anniversary of his death.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The summer of 1963 was a boiling point in the nation's violent struggle over civil rights. NPR will spend this summer looking back 50 years at the seminal events that gave black Americans their constitutional rights.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We'll start with a remembrance of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers: once reviled by many conservative whites in his home state of Mississippi, but now honored. Former President Bill Clinton, the Evers family and others will gather at his graveside in Arlington National Cemetery today. This is one of several tributes planned this month. NPR's Debbie Elliot reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: For Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the memories are still raw. Her family lived in terror behind the locked doors of their Jackson, Mississippi, home.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: It's a little difficult not to become emotional when I set foot on this soil.

ELLIOT: She's standing outside the modest, three-bedroom, ranch-style home in what was once known as the Elraine neighborhood. In the 1950s, it was one of the first new subdivisions built for African-Americans in Mississippi's segregated capital city.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: This is where the refrigerator was.

ELLIOT: Walking through the tiny kitchen, Evers-Williams points out the back window, where she grew rose bushes and a plum tree in the backyard. She calls this a place of love and of agony. The family moved to here when Evers accepted a job as the NAACP's first field secretary in the South, a job that made him a target of the white supremacists who would stop at nothing to preserve Jim Crow.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Medgar became number one on the Mississippi to-kill list, and we never knew from one day to the next what would happen. We lived - I lived in fear of losing him. He lived being constantly aware that he could be killed at any time.

ELLIOT: The house was firebombed. The kitchen phone rang constantly with threats. Even today, scars remain.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: The bullet came through the window, hit the wall, came through here, took the tile off, ricocheted, hit the door on the refrigerator, left a dent about this size.

ELLIOT: The bullet had killed Medgar Evers as he pulled into the driveway, just after midnight on June 12th, 1963. Inside the house, the Evers' three young children heard the gunfire. Reena Evers-Everette, just eight at the time, says they immediately acted out the emergency drill their family had practiced time and time again.

REENA EVERS-EVERETTE: My brother Darrel and I dropped to the floor and pulled our younger brother down and started for this bathroom, and going to the tub as we were taught, and left our younger brother Van in the tub. And Darrel and I bolted, yelling for my mother for the door. And then we stopped and ran down the steps and begged our father to get up.

ELLIOT: They found him on the carport, in a pool of blood, shot in the back. The murder made national news, including this NBC broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF NBC BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fifteen minutes past midnight, Evers got out of his car beside his home in a Negro residential area. In a vacant lot, about 40 yards away, a sniper fired a single shot from a high-powered rifle at Evers' silhouette.

ELLIOT: It was yet another report of the brutal response to civil rights activists in the South. Just a month before, police in Birmingham had turned fire hoses and police dogs on young Alabama protesters. The violence in 1963 grabbed the nation's attention and galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act. Medgar Evers had been laying the groundwork for nearly a decade by then.

In his role as field secretary for the NAACP, he traveled the state, registering voters, organizing boycotts of segregated businesses and encouraging activists not to be intimidated, like in this March 1963 speech at a mass meeting in Greenwood, Mississippi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MEDGAR EVERS: All we want you to do is keep going with this fight for freedom. And as we stick together here, as you feel the pains of dogs here in Greenwood, we'll feel them in Jackson. And we feel them in Jackson, you feel them here. And when we get this unity, ladies and gentlemen, nothing can stop us. We're going to win this fight for freedom. Thank you very much.

ELLIOT: Evers also tried to lift what his widow calls the cotton curtain that had kept the violence in Mississippi hidden from the rest of the nation. One of his first NAACP assignments was investigating Emmett Till's murder in 1955.

SUSAN GLISSON: Mississippi is a race-haunted place.

ELLIOT: Susan Glisson is director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.

GLISSON: It took grassroots, women and children and men to lead the effort for social change, and it was much harder in Mississippi than other places. And that story needs to be told. It's not just this easy, Martin stood up and Rosa sat down and everybody's free.

ELLIOT: At the state archives in Jackson, where Medgar Evers' life's work is on display, Glisson says he painstakingly documented every murder, beating, firebombing or other act of violence in Mississippi.

GLISSON: He would interview people, collect photographs when he could, and share that information with the NAACP and widely, so that, you know, there couldn't be this sense of denial, that folks were happy and that nothing was happening that was retaliatory for civil rights activity.

ELLIOT: Glisson says Evers' strategy of attacking Jim Crow from the ground up expanded the role of the NAACP, which had been mainly focused on legally dismantling the infrastructures of racism. Julian Bond, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalls the debate within the larger civil rights movement.

JULIAN BOND: Could you attack segregation in a place like Mississippi from within? Or did it have to be attacked from without? It was good to have these local people working here doing what they could, but we're going to really try to pressure it from outside. Well, that doesn't work. You've got to do something. You've got to go right to the heart of the beast. And Medgar Evers was the first person to do that.

ELLIOT: Bond, on a recent trip to Jackson, was amazed to see the airport bearing Medgar Evers' name, and downtown signs with Evers' picture announcing the 50th anniversary events. Bond says that's something he never thought he'd see.

BOND: I marvel sometimes at the changes. And, of course, it's easy to say it's not enough, because it's not enough. There are still things that need to be done. But I think the way this state, Mississippi, was 50 years ago, and the way it is now, the change is just enormous. I mean, I used to be afraid when I drove through Mississippi. I'm not afraid now. I'm going to drive through Mississippi day after tomorrow to Alabama. I'm not afraid to go to Alabama anymore.

ELLIOT: But the change was slow to come. It was 30 years after the killing before a Mississippi jury convicted Evers' assassin - white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith - and even longer for the state to fully embrace Evers' legacy. Over the next week, Evers will be honored with a series of events culminating in Jackson next Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of his death. Debbie Elliot, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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