By Professor Fred Whitted
NORTH CAROLINA – When Americans refer to the shot heard around the world, the usually mean the shot fired that sparked the American Revolution. Looking back, there was a shot in 1963 that was heard around the world. It sparked the Civil Rights Movement that led to major changes in our social standard. While that shot ended the life of Medgar Wiley Evers, it sparked a revolution.
Most of America would hardly give a second thought at the mention of the name, Medgar Evers. He is not one who is usually mentioned as part of the Civil Rights Movement, but, he is actually one of those who gave their all to ensure that other obtained the full measure of what God and the Constitution intended for them to have. It was Medgar Evers who laid the foundation for most of the success in what we know as the Civil Rights Movement.
It was his death at the hands of an assassin that solidified the Civil Rights Movement and made its success inevitable.
Evers was one of a rare breed of selfless men who know their role in history. He saw the needs of the people in his home state of Mississippi and took measures to meet them. No, he was not one of those feel good, do-gooders. He had a genuine heart for his people. He was outspoken on issues that affected them and was willing to stand up to the powers-that-be in the face of great danger. As a youngster on his father’s farm in Decatur, he witnessed a family friend being lynched and left hanging for a time as a warning to other Blacks.
Even his childhood did not escape. As a youngster, he had a little white friend.
They played back and forth between their two yards. After a time, the white youngster began to drift away. Eventually, he became distant and began to hang out with others kids. The final straw came when he called Medgar a nigger. From that point, they went their separate ways. His friends became part of the whites who devoted their energies to oppressing and controlling Blacks.
Evers grew up watching his parents and other adults oppressed by a system set I place to make them feel inferior and subservient to whites. Among the things he encountered were having to walk twelve miles to high school while his white neighbors rode buses. In spite of this, Evers did well in school until he left to join the Army.
During his tour with the military, Evers was involved in the Normandy Invasion. He returned to Mississippi with an even greater resolve to make a difference. He, along with his brother Charles and four friends were the first Blacks in their county to register to vote. Their actions sent a shockwave through the local populations on both sides of the color spectrum. While they were successful in registering, they were met be a mob of several hundred barring them from the polls.
This served to increase his desire to become better prepared for what he knew he would need to do. He enrolled atAlcorn College (State University) where he majored in business administration. He was very active during his college career. He was a star in football and track, as well as a member of the debate team, and student government. During his senior year, he married Myrlie Beasley.
After graduation, he took a job with an insurance company. This proved to be a good way for him to get a real look atMississippi, especially the delta area. He found a system more corrupt than they had imagined. He now recognized the full scope of how the system was designed to take advantage of Blacks. Dating back to the days of slavery, this system had worked against Blacks successfully, and no self-respecting white person was going to yield an inch of their possessions. Whites had a full set of measures designed to control and maintain themselves at the top of the social ladder.
Evers was everything that the southern powers did not want. He was smart, outspoken, and determined to make changes. During the time he was selling insurance, he began taking steps to affect change. On his own, he began by reviving the local chapter of the NAACP. Once he had it up and running, he began working there and with chapters in other towns. This did not go unnoticed by local powers. He began receiving threatening phone calls at home and in his office.
Around the same time, he applied to the University of Mississippi, becoming the first Black to apply for admission. He received an interview from school authorities who, by their line of questions, seemed more interested in knowing if he had been put up to this by the NAACP. Ultimately, his application was rejected, but this was another step on the road to change for him.
When the NAACP needed a field secretary, Evers left his job and took over leadership of all of the chapters inMississippi. In his new job, Evers did much of what he was already doing. Among his earliest duties was investigating the lynching of Emmitt Till. Knowing that he would not be allowed to do so, he dressed up as a field hand and found witnesses and collected evidence.
He investigated other incidents across the state. His work took him from his home in Jackson to towns big and small. At times, he was followed by whites and he often had to drive more than 100 miles per hour to escape them. At the heart of his quest was the desire to provide political and economic power to all of Mississippi. He often said, “If we can get rid of our sense of inferiority, we can begin to win our equality peacefully.”
That was not to be. Evers was facing the power structure practically alone. A major force in this struggle was the White Citizens Committee.
On the surface, it was an organization that was supported by the state that was aimed at maintaining segregation. It was actually a state-sponsored effort to fight integration at any level. It was made up of many of the upstanding citizens of Mississippi, including most of the elected officials and business leaders. While they espoused nonviolence, there was a segment of the organization that was allowed to enforce the will of the organization.
Throughout early parts of 1963, Evers was making great progress. He was leading boycotts against major businesses throughout the state. More people than ever were getting registered to vote. State and municipal leaders were beginning to negotiate with Black leaders, even if they were reneging on what they promised. Most of all, the citizens of Mississippi were beginning to see a light across the state that had never been seen before.
At the same time, whites were getting angrier at him and the threats were increasing. Evers was very aware of his mortality and had discussed it with his wife. Finally, after midnight on June 12th, Evers returned home after a long day in the office and a night of meetings. As he exited his car and started into his home, a shot rang out from across the street and cut him down as his wife and children waited for him to walk through the door.
Less than an hour later, Evers was dead.
The nation mourned the loss of this great man who had labored in near obscurity for nearly eight years. He had done so much for so many during that time that most felt an emptiness that would not easily be filled. At the same time, in his death, his life brought forth many things that led to change, not only in Mississippi but across the country. Until this time, much of the Civil Rights activities had been done in pockets here and there. Even the activities that Dr. King was supporting were spread out over the landscape. Most important of all, Blacks in Mississippi, for the first time on a major scale, stood up for themselves.
Evers did not have a death wish, but, he knew what he was doing could get him killed. His major fear was dying for nothing. He feared that all of the time he had spent away from his wife and children would ultimately be for mean nothing to the state of Mississippi and that nothing would change.
Things did change. Within ten years of his death, there were 145 elected officials in the state of Mississippi. More that 26 percent of the school children in the state were going to integrated schools. At the time of his death, there were only 28,000 voters registered. By 1971, the voting polls had swelled 250,000, and by 1982, there were more than 500,000 ready to vote.
Much like those who killed Christ, his enemies had no clue as to the ultimate effect their actions would have, they would not have touched him. There was a concerted effort to silence Evers, for fear of the changes that he could bring about. Many of these changes were already in place because of what he had been able to do since becoming field secretary of the NAACP. Even in death, Evers was steadily establishing a new way of doing things across the old confederacy, especially in Mississippi.America has not been the same since that time.
The change did not stop there. There were hundreds of acts that have been waiting for some measure of change. Because of his death, and, the entire Civil Rights Movement began to take shape. Following his death, the NAACP and other organizations took a more aggressive, and, they were more cohesive than ever. To the point of his death, most states, especially Mississippi, were moving based on all deliberate speed. Now, the bullet that pierced his back became the match that lit the fuse that literally caused the Civil Rights Movement because it generated a synergistic thrust that had not existed. It put the movement into a mode from which there was no turning back.
Across the country, there was a feeling that if Medgar Evers can face evil as he did, we need to stand up and face our enemies. From villages and hamlets everywhere, Blacks began to stand up. At the same time, beginning with the investigation of his murder, there was a new resolve among whites. They could no longer stand by and ignore the facts. It was clear that this was not an isolated incident. It was a calculated miscarriage of justice against a segment of society that was manifested with a bullet in the back of a man that was just trying to make things better.
In death, his true legacy came to the surface over a number of years. There were some immediate changes with the federal government forcing integration of schools, facilities, and institutions. In 1986, Mike Espy was elected to the US Congress representing the delta area. Evers’ brother Charles was elected mayor of Fayette, Mississippi. Blacks began to vote in greater numbers and eventually began to win control of towns where they had been the majority for years.
On December 17, 1990, after escaping conviction twice in 1964, Byron De La Beckwith, was arrested for the murder of Medgar Evers. Beckwith had only been the trigger man for the forces of power in Mississippi who sought to eliminate what they perceived as a problem. Beckwith had been a part of the White Citizens’ Council and the Klan and had ties to the Sovereignty Commission. These organizations were the true power base in Mississippi at the time, with the state and local governments as a facade. This time, armed with new evidence, with a jury that included Blacks, Beckwith was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2001 at age 80.
Medgar Evers has been one of the best-kept secrets of the Civil Rights Movement. So little of his efforts were not covered by the media, he remained off the radar screen for most of his life. Still, his efforts were significant enough that he became a thorn to those who resisted change. Obscurity did not dull his efforts, and he became the martyrs of the movement that made it move because he was willing to give the full measure for what he believed.
Professor Fred Whitted can be reached via email at email@example.com