50 Years After His Death, Medgar Evers' Work Not Complete
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NPR is looking back on the summer of 1963, a boiling point in the nation's violent civil rights struggle. It was 50 years ago today, that civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. Today, he's being remembered in Mississippi's capital city.
And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, the anniversary highlights both progress made and work that remains.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS AND BELLS)
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: At high noon in Jackson today, a bell tolled for Medgar Evers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS AND BELLS)
ELLIOTT: The NAACP field secretary was gunned down in front of his home just after midnight on June 12th, 1963. He was 37 years old and had spent a decade organizing blacks in Mississippi to fight for equal rights to education, to public facilities and to vote. Fifty years ago, he was reviled by white politicians. Today, Mississippi's Republican Governor Phil Bryant paid tribute to Evers.
GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: And so, as we gather here today, again, let us remember the sacrifice of the loved and the lost but also let us celebrate the progress, the joy of thousands and thousands of Mississippians that have looked for opportunities now for freedom, for expression and for success.
ELLIOTT: Over the past week, the state has honored Evers' legacy with museum retrospectives, a youth congress on freedom, and civil rights tours.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would like to welcome you all to the tour, "Where Medgar Walked." And aren't you all glad we are not walking, really?
ELLIOTT: With temperatures soaring into the mid '90s, the tourists get a view of downtown from the windows of an air-conditioned tour bus.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The building that you see to your left, the window closest to the wall with the kudzu on it, this served as the first office for Medgar Wiley Evers.
ELLIOTT: The weed-covered building is on Farrish Street, once the thriving center of African-American life in Jackson, now a desolate avenue of dilapidated buildings and boarded up storefronts, just blocks from the Mississippi State Capitol.
DEIRDRE PAYNE: Actually I think Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King would be disappointed.
ELLIOTT: Deirdre Payne came for the tour to mark the 50 years since the tragic events of 1963. She was 12 years old at the time and remembers the night her aunt said: They done killed Medgar. Payne left Jackson and spent her career in the oil and gas industry elsewhere. Now retired and back home again, she says remnants of Mississippi's closed society remain.
PAYNE: There are no more separate water fountains that you can see. There is no longer a White Citizens Council or a Klan that's walking the street. So there are changes, yes, but underneath all of that there is still that film of white privilege, oppression, and violence just on the other side of that.
ELLIOTT: Mississippi still struggles to overcome that history, says Jackson State University political scientist Leslie Burl McLemore.
LESLIE BURL MCLEMORE: We are looking at a history of denial. I mean, the level of cooperation that you had in Atlanta 25 years ago, we still don't have that level of cooperation between blacks and whites in Jackson, Mississippi.
ELLIOTT: McLemore is a former president of the Jackson City Council. He says considering that nearly one in three Jackson residents live in poverty, Medgar Evers would be of two minds about what he might see here today.
MCLEMORE: We have the largest black middle class that we have ever had. We have black Mississippians doing better financial than they've ever done. But, you know, we cannot forget the people who have not progressed because of the discrimination, the lack of education, a cycle in families where people have not been able to get out of poverty.
ELLIOTT: McLemore says there's no doubt been a transformation here, coming from a climate of fear to being the state with more black elected officials than any other. But he says the work Medgar Evers begun is not complete.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Mississippi.