Reviving Eudora Welty's Account Of Medgar Evers

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Eudora Welty's 1963 short story about the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers will be published in its original form this weekend in the Mississippi newspaper The Clarion Ledger. Reporter Jerry Mitchell talks to Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about its significance.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1963, Eudora Welty wrote a story about the assassination of civil rights leader Medger Evers. The New Yorker magazine decided to publish it, but they stripped the story of all references to Evers and the city where he was killed, Jackson, Mississippi. Now, 50 years later, the Jackson newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger, is publishing Welty's original story, names included.

Jerry Mitchell is a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger. He joins us now to talk more about this. Mr. Mitchell, thanks so much for being here.

JERRY MITCHELL: Oh, glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So this story by Eudora Welty, when The New Yorker published it they titled it "Where the Voice is Coming From?" It is now being published in its original form. What is the significance of that?

MITCHELL: Well, when she wrote at the time, as she put it, it was the only thing she ever wrote in anger. And she wrote it the same day that Medgar Evers was assassinated. She was so upset about it but she felt like she knew the mind of the killer, the man who had done this, and so she wrote it from that perspective. And she use Medgar Evers' name, real Jackson landmarks. You know, Jackson becomes Thermopylae in the fictional version.

MARTIN: That was a made-up name they assigned.

MITCHELL: Right, made-up town. And so, we just thought that it made the story more real, more authentic, more like she originally meant it. And because of the arrest of Byron De La Beckwith, 10 days later, they ended up changing it, you know, for libel reasons, et cetera, that kind of thing.

MARTIN: Do you think as a reader it is more powerful to read the piece with these names?

MITCHELL: I think so. I think it's more powerful to have the real landmarks, the real person, Medgar Evers, as opposed to a fictional name, Roland Summers. And those were from Jackson and know Jackson will obviously recognize those things and connect with them. And I think even those outside Jackson will connect with it.

And I think any time you connect with real events and real people, I think it brings a power that you don't have in fiction alone.

MARTIN: You have a special connection to this story. You actually interviewed the man who was convicted of killing Medgar Evers.

MITCHELL: Yes, Byron De La Beckwith.

MARTIN: What did you learn about him?

MITCHELL: He's actually the most racist person I ever spent any time with. It's just one racial epithet or comment after another. He just kind of spewed it. And yet he was very kind to his wife, very gentlemanly. And so there's the kind of that massive Southern contradiction that we have, and all kind of wrapped up in him.

MARTIN: So, years later, you also got to meet with Eudora Welty before she died. You talked with her about the story she wrote about Medgar Evers.

MITCHELL: Yes, I did. Actually I did get to talk to her about it. And I actually told her that she got it right.

MARTIN: How is he portrayed in her story? When we say she got it right...

MITCHELL: Well, the mind of the killer. I mean, what he's thinking as he sees Medgar Evers on television, and he goes through these things of, you know, kind of plotting to kill him.

MARTIN: What is the legacy of this story of Medgar Evers, but also Eudora Welty's portrayal of his assassination? What does its legacy mean to Jackson, Mississippi?

MITCHELL: Delta Drive - the same street that Byron De La Beckwith came in on and left on to kill Medgar Evers - is now named Medgar Evers Boulevard. And so, those kinds of changes have taken place in Mississippi. In a sense, the very thing that Byron De La Beckwith killed a Medgar Evers for, actually in some ways helped to fuel the changes. Those kinds of changes; the street being now named after Medgar Evers, the post office being named after Medgar Evers, the airport now named after Medgar Evers, the building that was built by slaves is now inhabited by an African-American mayor.

So these kinds of things, changes have taken place. At the time that Medgar Evers was killed, very few African-Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi or were able to vote in Mississippi. Today, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state. So these are the kind of changes that have come in the wake of Medgar Evers' assassination.

MARTIN: Jerry Mitchell, he is a longtime reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.

Mr. Mitchell, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much.

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MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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