Medgar Evers: Biography, Accomplishments, Assassination, & Legacy
Medgar Evers was a renowned civil rights activist who spent the bulk part of his very brief life working to end segregation in public universities and other public facilities. Prior to his civil rights activism, he had distinguished himself bravely in the United States Army as a sergeant during World War II, fighting in the Western Front and the Battle of Normandy.
Evers famously won the admiration of many Mississippi and national civil rights activists for his unparalleled commitment to honorable causes from the enforcement of voting rights to equal employment opportunities for African Americans. Sadly, his life was cut short on June 12, 1963. The former World War II veteran cum civil rights activist was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith, a radical member of the White Citizens’ Council in Mississippi.
Evers was survived by his wife Myrlie, his three children and his brother Charles Evers (former mayor of Fayette, Mississippi). Both his wife and brother went on to become renowned civil rights activists, carrying on the legacy of Medgar Evers.
Medgar Evers: Quick Facts
Birth name: Medgar Wiley Evers
Date and Place of Birth: July 2, 1925, Decatur, Mississippi, U.S.
Date and Place of Death: June 12, 1963, Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
Cause of Death: Assassinated
Parents: Jesse Wright and James Evers
Siblings: 4, including Charles Evers (1922-2020)
College: Alcorn State University (graduated in 1952)
Wife: Myrlie Evers (married in 1951) (later Myrlie Evers-Williams)
Children: 3 – Darrell Kenyatta, James Van Dyke Evers, and Reena Denise.
Most known for: A renowned American civil rights activist
Early Life and College
Born on July 2, 1925, to parents Jesse Wright and James Evers, Medgar Willey Evers grew up in Decatur, Mississippi. He was the third of five children of his parents.
Owing to the segregation laws (Jim Crow laws) back then, Medgar and siblings had to walk close to 12 miles (19 km) to school every day.
After graduating high school, he joined the United States Army and fought bravely during World War II. He distinguished himself gallantly in the Battle of Normandy in 1944. He would go on to attain the rank of sergeant before his honorable discharge from the army.
After the war was over, Evers was secured an admission to the predominantly black school – Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (presently Alcorn State University).
During his college years, he was very active on the school’s athletic and debate teams. He once served as the president of his junior class. In 1952, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in business administration.
A year prior to his college graduation, he married Myrlie Beasley – a classmate of his. The couple went on to have three children together – Darrell Kenyatta, James Van Dyke Evers, and Reena Denise.
Civil Rights Activism and Accomplishments
Shortly after serving in World War II, Evers received the biggest shock of his life when he and his friends were violently driven away by white supremacists as they tried to cast their votes in a local election. A country that he had served gallantly turned her back on him. Rather than feel negative and resentful over the situation, Evers proceeded to leave a long-lasting legacy in civil rights movement.
Prior to his involvement in civil rights activism, he worked as salesman for life insurance company in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. While in Mound Bayou, he served as the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL).
The council was quite vocal in organizing many laudable social initiatives and events for civil rights. He and his older brother Charles once involved in setting up a boycott of local petrol stations that refused to let blacks have access to their restrooms.
Between 1952 and 1954, a series of RCNL conferences that Evers helped organize received more than 10,000 attendants.
As long as God gives me strength to work and try to make things real for my children, I’m going to work for it – even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Evers association with the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) came around 1954 – a year that saw a seismic event take place in the country. In a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education made it unconstitutional for the continued segregation of public schools in the United States.
His commitment to the cause stemmed from the University of Mississippi Law School denying him an admission, a decision that was undoubtedly based on his race. With legal counsel from Thurgood Marshall (later associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), Evers filed a lawsuit against the university in 1954.
His efforts in the civil rights movement were recognized, as he was appointed the first field secretary of the NAACP in the state. In that position he coordinated the field activities of the 82 counties, often attending to complaints about racial discrimination.
Under his leadership, new local chapters were established. Also numerous boycotts were organized in a bid to shed light on the segregation laws in the state.
From integration of public transportation to voter registration drives, Medgar Evers remained dedicated, exhibiting strong leadership traits in the civil rights movement. He was engaged in raising funds, rallying the young people, coming to the aid of people blighted by racial discrimination laws in the state.
He was involved in investigating the murder of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was brutally murdered by white supremacists after reportedly engaging in a warm conversation with a local shopkeeper’s wife. Till, a Chicago-born, was visiting his family in Mississippi. Evers encouraged witnesses to come forward in helping the case move forward. He and his team from the NAACP went as far as providing witness protection for those who testified in the case.
Much of his activism was scorned by radical white supremacists individuals in the state; many of those white supremacists, who by the way belonged to the White Citizens’ Council in Mississippi, made it their core objective to fight against the wave of school integration policies that was sweeping through the state.
Medgar Evers, along with a number of NAACP members, became target of those radical racist groups. On several occasions, Evers was intimidated by them; and in one very scary event on June 7, 1963, a molotov cocktail was hurled at him just as he was exiting a local NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi.
How did Medgar Evers die?
Owing to the civil rights activism that he carried out through the state, his life, as well as the lives of his loved ones, came under immense threat from a host of white supremacist organizations. As a matter of precaution he made sure to prep his wife and children on the must-dos during times of bombing or shootings. To shore up his security, he was often escorted by the police and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Interestingly on the day that he died, none of those police agents had escorted him. Evers drove into his driveway in the early hours of Wednesday, June 12, 1963. Evers had spent the last 12 hours at a meeting with the legal team of the NAACP.
Just as he was about to make it into his house, he was struck down by a bullet, which went straight to his heart. The sheer force of the bullet knocked down the 37-year-old civil rights activist to ground. In the ensuing panic, his wife quickly rushed the bleeding Evers to the hospital (an all-white hospital) in Jackson. It’s been stated that the hospital staff initially refused to take the injured Evers in; it was only when they realized who he was in the community that the doctors attended to him.
Did you know: Prior to Medgar Evers, no African American had ever been admitted to an all-white hospital in Mississippi?
Funeral and Burial
After close to an hour of frantic efforts to save his life, he died in the hospital. His death was mourned by the entire African American community in the state and beyond. As a sign of respect to this fallen hero, over 6,000 people embarked on a march from the Masonic Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street. His funeral procession was attended by civil rights titans such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Allen Johnson.
On June 19, 1963, Medgar Evers was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. And because of his service in the U.S. Army, he was given full military honors in front of over 3,000 mourners.
Who killed Medgar Evers?
After the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the District Attorney Office, led by Bill Waller, opened an investigation into the murder. Nine days after his murder, a fertilizer salesman Byron De La Beckwith – also a known member of the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan – was taken into custody.
The white supremacist was put on trial in the following months. The all-white juries were hung on the trial and declared a mistrial, allowing De La Beckwith walk out of the court a free man.
However, Evers’ resilient wife Myrlie Evers refused to back down and continued to push for a retrial. After a whopping three decades since the death of Evers, the prosecutors, led by Bobby DeLaughter, found new evidence to proceed with a new trial of De La Beckwith. Following months of trial, De La Beckwith was found guilty of murdering Medgar Evers on February 5, 1994. De La Beckwith died on January 21, 2001 while serving his life sentence in prison.
Interesting Facts about Medgar Evers
- A very important accomplishment of Medgar Evers came when he and the legal team at the NAACP fought very hard to desegregate the University of Mississippi. This work of his came after James Meredith (just like Evers himself) was denied admission to the university because of the color of his skin. The NAACP facilitated the lawsuit against the university and ultimately secured victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962.
- On the day that he was brutally murdered, he had on him T-shirts with the inscription “Jim Crow Must Go”.
- Following his death, he was constantly memorialized by the likes of Margaret Walker, Anne Moody and James Baldwin.
- The NAACP posthumously awarded him the 1963 NAACP Springarn Medal.
- As part of an initiative from the City University of New York, the Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York.
- Medgar Evers’ wife, Myrlie Evers, went on to become a renowned civil rights activist in the state and beyond. She even rose to become the national chairperson of the NAACP.
- In recognition of his dedication to the cause of civil rights, a community pool in a neighborhood in the Central District of Seattle, Washington, was named after him.
- The city council in Jackson, Mississippi made a statue of Medgar Evers at the Medgar Evers Boulevard Library.
- In December 2004, the airport in Jackson City was renamed Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.
- American singer and songwriter Nina Simone’s song “Mississippi Goddam” was about the life and assassination of Medgar Evers. Similarly Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” featured themes about Evers’ assassination.
- At a ceremony in November 2011, a U.S. Navy dry cargo/ammunition ship (a Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship) was named after Medgar Evers. The ship’s name is USNS Medgar Evers. In 2017, his home was designated a national historic landmark.
- As part of efforts to keep his legacy, his wife Myrlie Evers-Williams helped found the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi. Myrlie was also involved in the invocation during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2013.
- His brother, Charles Evers (1922-2020), was the first African American to become a mayor of a city in Mississippi. Charles Evers served as mayor of Fayette, Mississippi from 1985 to 1989.