The Legacy of Medgar Evers

40 Years After Civil Rights Leader's Death, a Changed Mississippi

Medgar Evers

hide captionA photo of Medgar Evers taken shortly before his death on June 12, 1963.

Library of Congress
Y.Z. Walker

hide captionY.Z. Walker, a teenage friend of Medgar Evers, in his garden in Newton County, Miss.

Melanie Peeples, NPR News

Evers' Life and Legacy

» Born July 2, 1925, near Decatur, Miss.

» Inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943. After serving in Normandy, he attended Alcorn College, now Alcorn State University. Began to establish local chapters of the NAACP beginning in 1952.

» In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. Evers applied for, and was denied admission to, the University of Mississippi Law School. That same year he was appointed Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP. His success with boycotts and integrating schools brought him national recognition -- but also made enemies among racists and segregationists.

» On June 12, 1963, Evers was killed by an assassin’s bullet. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

» The accused killer, a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith, stood trial twice in the 1960s. Both cases ended in mistrials because the all-white juries could not reach a verdict.

» Beckwith was convicted in a third trial in 1994, and sentenced to life in prison.

» When Evers died in 1963, only 28,000 blacks were registered voters. By 1971, there were 250,000. By 1982, there were over 500,000.

Source: University of Mississippi

Listen "Ballad of Medgar Evers"
Sung by the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers, led by Matthew Jones. Recorded at the 1965 SNCC conference in Atlanta, Ga.

Forty years ago this week, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson. It took 31 years for Evers' killer to be brought to justice — but in that time, the state has changed a great deal. Once the leader in the number of lynchings in America, today Mississippi leads in the number of elected black officials.

It's part of Medgar Evers' legacy — paid for in blood — and stamped on the lives of Mississippians, from the state capital in Jackson to the cornfields of Newton County where Medgar Evers grew up.

"It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don't choose to live anywhere else. There's land here, where a man can raise cattle, and I'm going to do it some day." As NPR's Melanie Peeples reports, those words were written by Evers in 1954, part of a magazine article where he tries to explain why he didn't just leave the state and its harsh inequalities.

Medgar Evers didn't get a chance to grow old and raise cattle, but his friend Y.Z. Walker, now 77, did.

"Gardening and raising cows is also Walker's idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, now that he's retired from filling vending machines," Peeples says.

Both Walker and Evers were drafted out of high school to fight in World War II. They returned to find little had changed. Water fountains, lunch counters and train stations were still segregated.

"I said well, look, here I done went over yonder and done all these things in the South Pacific and everywhere — Midway, the destroyers and everything — and come back home and can't even get a cool drink of water. This is bad," Walker says.

But Walker remembers that Evers always questioned the Jim Crow segregation laws, even when they were kids.

A few miles away in the town of Decatur — just a few streets over from the courthouse where Medgar Evers was turned away from trying to register to vote in 1946 — Louise Johnson walks down the street where Evers' family once lived. It's now called Medgar Evers Drive.

"(Evers) told us one day, he said we're gonna vote," Johnson says. "There's gonna come a day where they're gonna ask for our vote. Well, we couldn't see it in that day and time — but it happened, and it's happening."

Evers' assassination was a flash point for activism in the black community. During his funeral procession in Jackson, thousands marched in the streets shouting, "After Medgar, No More Fear."

Today, Newton County is 30 percent black. All the mayors are white, but two of the five aldermen in each city are black. And in Newton, the chief of police is black — he was appointed by the majority white city council.

Newton County resident Walter Gardner remembers Evers' death and the movement that followed. “It catalyzed my interest in getting with trying to do something to be a participant and not a bystander in our society,” he says.

After years of challenging the way voting districts are drawn, he succeeded in creating a majority black district in Newton County, and in 1991 was elected the first black county supervisor.

In 1969, Evers' brother Charles was the first black man elected mayor in Mississippi. "Medgar and I said many years ago, if we ever end the violent racism in this state, it'll be the greatest state in the world to live," he tells Peeples. "And now, Medgar, I know you're gone, but I'm telling you, son, it's come to pass."

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