FORT LEE, Va. – Civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers was well-known for his high energy, sobriety and tenacity. He would not spare a minute in pursuing equality — not when black people in segregationist Mississippi were being murdered, beaten, and degraded as human beings.
Evers was on the literal front lines of the battle, not some location up north where a declaration to fight for civil rights in the 1940s-’50s was relatively harmless. In the Deep South, poverty had overshadowed the slaveholder cotton wealth generated in the mid-1800s. The Civil War remained a point of contention. Confederate loyalties ran deep, and a decision to join the struggle was an acceptance of potential danger and maybe even death.
Evidence of Mississippi’s subjugated racial climate had been within Evers’ sightlines since childhood. The Decatur, Miss., native remembered walking miles to school with others of his ethnicity while white kids riding school buses yelled epithets at them. He had seen the horrific aftermath of a family acquaintance being killed for a social infraction.
"I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death because he sassed back to a white woman," read an Evers’ recounting of the incident that appeared in the book "The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice," written by Jack Mendelsohn. "They just left him for dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew about it, but never said a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes."
How that incident influenced Evers’ desire to fight for civil rights is uncertain. Another conjecture is that it was precipitated by his military service in World War II. Enlisting was an opportunity for black men and women to prove their courage and competency, and therefore, their worthiness as Americans. When they went abroad, they were enlightened by the absence of Jim Crow, and Europe’s comparative acceptance garnered much thought, consideration and hope.
Furthermore, new job and organizational skills — along with contributing to the Allied victory — had an encouraging and emboldening effect on African American military members. Many returned to U.S. shores with swelled chests and the confidence that had been forged by their individual and collective contributions to the war.
Evers, having supported the famed Red Ball Express logistical effort in the European Theater, was transformed by his time in uniform. The Army was segregated, which certainly harkened back to his life in Mississippi, but he nevertheless saw his service as a down payment toward full citizenship. He felt he had earned the right to demand change for better. He began to attach himself to civil rights causes not long after returning home.
Minnie Watson, a retired tour guide at the Medgar Evers Home Museum in Jackson, Miss., said people always questioned why Evers would commit to the daunting and dangerous task of disrupting Southern convention.
"They would ask him, ‘Mr. Evers, why are you doing this?’" recalled Watson, who met Evers when she was a college freshman. "He would say, ‘Somebody has to do it. It’s on my shoulders … You’ve got to speak up. These things are not going to come easy.’"
Despite the unfathomable degree of difficulty in making change in Ol’ Dixie, Evers was committed to fulfilling his role. In 1946, he and his brother Charles, who also served during the war, led a group of African American veterans to the Decatur City Hall to register to vote. When they showed up on Election Day to cast ballots, they were turned back by a white mob.
Evers marched on, perhaps driven by the same sense of duty he felt in uniform. He had risked his life for a country that was treating him less than an equal. Correcting that injustice was nearly equal to fighting -and perhaps dying — for his rights and those of others at home. In that regard, he walked valiantly into the teeth of battle, grappling with voting rights and championing integration while supporting a long list of other issues in a state where more than 600 lynchings had occurred from 18771950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Defiant in the face of a terrifying reality, Evers still went about his business to rid Mississippi of its misdeeds. He was one of the first blacks appearing on TV in the state, exposing himself to the many who saw no worth in his next breath much less his work to change life as they knew it. Conversely, Evers did not expect anyone to hand him what he felt he was owed, and he knew his decision to fight came with consequences, said Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow.
"We both knew he was going to die," she told Esquire Magazine.
Evers expressed his resignation this way: "Freedom has never been free. … I love my children, and I love my wife with all my heart. And I would die, die gladly, if that would make a better life for them," he said on June 7, 1963.
Five days later, the 37-year-old had returned home after a long meeting at a Jackson, Miss., church. As he left the car and began walking toward the kitchen entrance, he was felled by a bullet from a high-powered rifle. It was round 12:20 a.m.
His murder fueled passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the landmark federal legislation that provides for the rights of all people.
Evers’ work as a civil rights advocate is extensive. He investigated the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and many other suspicious deaths. He led boycotts and rallies and tackled segregationist issues one by one. He doubled the NAACP’s youth membership in a few years. He helped James Meredith become the first black to attend the University of Mississippi, years after his own application was rejected.
And the list goes on.
Former Sgt. Medgar Wiley Evers is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The words of his widow at a 2003 ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of his assassination could not have been more perfectly chosen. "The ‘Taps’ played with a final salute," she said. "It felt as if we were truly being treated as Americans."