By Charlie Mitchell
Here’s something we can take away from all the speeches and ceremonies regarding the 50th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Wiley Evers: He didn’t ask for anything extra. As a veteran and native Mississippian, he sought the same things available to others who fit the same description.
He wanted to seek an education, he wanted to vote, he wanted employment open to him if he met the qualifications.
He was denied those things for only one reason: His skin was dark; his ancestors came to the land of freedom from Africa, not from Europe.
That’s it. That’s all. He was a married man with three young children, owner of a modest, well-kept home. He was three weeks shy of his 39th birthday.
Much of what has become known as the Civil Rights Movement came after Evers was shot in the back and killed in his driveway. In 2013, race relations, race depictions – every nuance having to do with race – has become complex, confusing and sometimes confounding.
In Evers’ lifetime, things were simpler – or at least the situation was more straightfoward.
It was apartheid.
There were no black Mississippians in office except, perhaps, the all-black community of Mound Bayou. There were no black Mississippians in any noncustodial employment by state or local government – no black policemen or state troopers. No black teachers, except in all-black schools. The idea of a black clerk serving a white customer in a department store was unthinkable, as was a black family checking into a hotel, dining in a restaurant or even buying an ice cream cone at the walk-up window of a roadside dairy bar. Even in death, there was no equality. Most cemeteries were segregated, too.
Julian Bond has famously criticized how we tend to capsulize civil rights history as “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, and the white kids came down and saved the day.”
There were triggers, iconic moments. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955. The bus boycott in Montgomery. The freedom riders, the Neshoba County slatings, the lunch counter sit-ins, the assassinations of Evers and, in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King. It is these events that come to mind when we condense history into snapshots, tell school children about them during Black History Month. But events, recalled in isolation, don’t tell the story.
Evers was born in Decatur, grew up in a farming family and served the Army in during World War II. Discharged as a sergeant, he went to Alcorn State, where met and married Myrlie Beasley of Vicksburg. They moved to Mound Bayou, where Evers sold insurance, and had three children. Pretty typical.
But Evers was not content. He wasn’t angry, just not fulfilled. Myrlie Evers-Williams said her husband told her one day in 1955 that he was going to apply to go to law school at the University of Mississippi. His admission was denied, and the university remained all-white for another seven years.
At some point, and probably due to many factors, Evers decided to devote his life to removing race as a consideration in the availability of opportunities for people to serve themselves, their families, their state.
There were external threats. The Evers’ home in Jackson was firebombed; there was an attempt to run him down in the street. There was internal turmoil. Evers advocated grassroots organization and direct, nonviolent action by local groups, while the bosses at NAACP, which he served a Mississippi field secretary, discouraged this in favor of using the courts to kill Jim Crow. There are many details, much to know and try to understand.
Overall, however, anniversaries such as this give everyone the opportunity to ponder, to try to come to an understanding of the time, the place, the people who saw their state passing laws and enforcing customs based on the lie that race is a legitimate basis to close doors to minorities – and took action to shed light on this as fallacious, destructive and at odds with our collective best interests.
If all we do is politely remember Medgar Evers and memorize names and dates associated with his life, we miss the point completely. The core proposition for which he stood will, if we let it, guide us through the decisions we make today and, importantly, make sure that coming generations do not fall prey to prejudice and unfounded beliefs. Instead, they will use their minds and their abilities, to seek, as Evers did, equal justice for all.
CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.