Fifty years ago today Medgar Evers’ life was cut short by a white supremacist’s bullet. Evers’ death and subsequent trials shocked the civil rights community.
Born on July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, Evers grew up in a farming family. In 1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Evers served in Europe and fought in the Battle of Normandy. He was honorably discharged in 1946. When he returned home, he and some friends tried to vote in a local election only to be turned away at gunpoint.
He enrolled at Alcorn State University where Evers met and married a fellow student, Myrlie Beasley. A year after they married, Evers received his degree in business administration. Later, they became parents to three children: Darrell, Reena and James.
Evers and his brother Charlie became active in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights and pro self-help organization. In February 1954, he applied and was rejected to the University of Mississippi Law School (then a segregated school). This brought him to the attention of the NAACP who used Evers as the focus of a school desegregation campaign. Later that year, he became Mississippi’s first NAACP field officer. He would travel around the state registering poor African Americans to vote and recruiting youth into the civil rights movement.
While his name was unfamiliar around the country, Evers was one of Mississippi’s most prominent civil rights activists. Because of his activism, he and his family endured many threats. In May 1963, their home in Jackson was firebombed.
On June 12, 1963, Evers arrived home from a meeting at a nearby church when a bullet struck him in the back. His wife found him on the door’s stoop, he had staggered about 30 feet before collapsing. Evers was pronounced dead an hour later at the hospital.
His murder outraged civil rights leaders around the country, including President John Kennedy who then asked Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill. It would be signed into law the next year under President Lyndon Johnson.
The sniper rifle used to shot Evers was found near the scene. The FBI traced it to Bryon De La Beckwith, a known segregationist who harbored hatred for African Americans, Jews and Roman Catholics. Beckwith’s fingerprints were matched to those on the rifle’s telescopic sight. He told investigators that his rifle had been stolen.
Witnesses to Evers’ murder reported seeing a man who looked like Beckwith around the same time as the murder. Additionally, people came forward and stated that an unfamiliar car was seen in the neighborhood that looked like Beckwith’s white Plymouth Valiant. Beckwith responded with an alibis that placed him about 95 miles away at the time of Evers’ murder. He also found witnesses substantiated it, including two police officers.
Murder charges were brought against Beckwith twice. Both trials ended in a hung jury. The all-white, all-male juries were typical in the deep south and notorious with ignoring evidence. It also did not help that former Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett (a known supporter of segregation) shook hands with Beckwith in the courtroom in front of the jury during Myrlie Evers’ testimony. Found not guilty, Beckwith went free.
Myrlie was outraged that the justice system failed. The Washington Post wrote that “More than any of the other civil rights widows, Myrlie Evers showed America her rage. She let the nation see her unfiltered emotion when two all-white juries refused to convict Medgar’s killer, during a time when black anger was not an acceptable display of emotion.”
After the second trial, Myrlie and her children moved to California. However, she still fought endlessly to keep her late husband’s murder case active. She wrote a book that began: “Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband.” Three decades later, her search for justice finally paid off.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, enough new evidence arose to warrant a new murder trial against Beckwith. The state of Mississippi, under pressure from civil rights leaders and Evers’ family, reopened the case. While the physical evidence was mostly the same as the first two trials, the prosecution brought forward new witnesses. Their key witness stated that Beckwith often bragged about his rifle skills and his involvement in Evers’ death at KKK and other segregationist events.
The country tuned in to see how the third trial unfolded. During the trial, Beckwith refused to give any interviews unless they paid a fee of $5,000. His wife Thelma Neff, on the other hand, was more forth coming with the press. Of her husband she responded, “If men were a fourth as good . . . we wouldn’t have any problems in America.” When asked her thoughts on the officials who reopened the case, she stated that they are “giving in to the blacks too much.”
On February 5, 1994, a jury of eight African Americans and four Caucasians found Beckwith guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of Medgar Evers. Beckwith was reportedly stunned by the decision, perhaps assuming this trial would end the same as the last two. He would later try to appeal, but was unsuccessful. He was sent to prison where he died in 2001.
Myrlie went on to write books about civil rights topics and her husband’s legacy. On January 21, 2013, she was asked by President Barrack Obama to deliver the invocation at his second presidential inauguration. She became the first woman and the first layperson to do so. Myrlie was recently asked what Medgar would think about American society now:
I believe he would look at the landscape of this country and realize what so many of us have said: We have made progress but there’s still so much to be done, and if we don’t guard the progress we’ve made, that too will slip away.
Evers’ legacy of pushing for black voter registration and encouraging others to participate in the civil rights movement was crucial not only to Mississippi, but to the entire movement as a whole. He led boycotts against companies that practiced discrimination showing them that African Americans were not second class citizens. After the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Evers spent years gathering evidence and witnesses for the murder investigation. When James Meredith made news in 1962 by trying to gain admission as the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, Evers was there to help as well.
In the historical context of the civil rights movement, Evers’ death tends to be overshadowed by the assassinations of other leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as well as both John and Robert Kennedy. Evers’s actions during his 37 years of life prove that his participation in the civil rights movement was more than just a shadow. In 1963, Evers commented that “In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world.” He helped to change that picture and, because of him and so many others, history indeed met its turning point.
“If we work with sufficient dedication, we will be able to achieve, in the not too distant future, a society in which no one is discriminated against on the basis of his race, his religion or his national origin. Our faith is invested in a law that is over and above man-made laws. We are dedicated to the cause of freedom and will continue to fight under God’s law, without fear of consequence.”
–Medgar Evers, May 31, 1959
Myrlie Evers-Williams’ invocation at President Obama’s inauguration can be found here.
Bill Nichols, “A town-shunning history: Few aware of neighbor’s link to Evers slaying,” USA Today, January 9, 1991.
David Stout, “Bryon De La Beckwith Dies: Killer of Medgar Evers Was 80,” New York Times, January 23, 2001.
USA Today, “Evers-Williams pays homage to ‘those who came before,'” January 21, 2013.
Krissah Thompson, “Myrlie Evers-Williams returns to Mississippi as more than a civil rights widow,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2013.
FBI, “Civil Rights in the ’60s, Part 1: Justice for Medgar Evers,” June 11, 2013.
CBS/AP, “For Medgar Evers’ widow, husband’s legacy trumps personal bitterness,” June 12, 2013.