Just a few months ago, we celebrated the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we do every year. And several months hence, when Nov. 22 rolls around, the media will be flooded with recollections and reminiscences about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But wedged neatly between February and November—June 12th to be precise—is another date that deserves to be remembered this year, in particular. It marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
I've sat down several times during the past year intending to write something about this anniversary, because I don't want it to pass unnoticed in Knoxville, although it will pass unnoticed in most places. There will be commemorations and celebrations of Evers' life all week in Jackson, Mississippi, and in Lorman, where he attended college. A memorial service will be held on June 5th at Arlington National Cemetery, where Evers—like President Kennedy—is interred. But my connection to Evers is personal.
You see, it was my uncle, Byron De La Beckwith, who shot Medgar Evers in the back and killed him.
I'm not proud of that fact, and I write those words shamefully, not boastfully. My 1994 book about the murder, Portrait of a Racist, was marketed and reviewed as a biography of my uncle, but I like to think it was a broader portrait of the Mississippi in which both men came of age and pursued their passions. Both men served in the armed forces during World War II and returned to their native Mississippi with aspirations about how their lives could be bettered and enriched. Evers became an activist and leader of Jackson's NAACP chapter and worked tirelessly to advance the cause of the oppressed, while Beckwith worked with the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan to try to ensure those advances were curtailed at every turn.
On that sweltering night in June 1963, their trajectories intersected. President Kennedy made his landmark television address to the nation outlining his proposed civil rights legislation. That was one of the reasons Evers was returning home at nearly midnight, tired after a very long day. He'd attended a meeting after the President's broadcast. After turning into his driveway in his powder blue Oldsmobile, Evers stepped out of his car with an armful of fundraising sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan "Jim Crow Must Go." His wife and children were just steps away, inside their home, when a single shot from a high-powered rifle rang out, piercing Evers' starched white shirt and exploding through his chest. He fell forward, his keys still in his hand, the shirts scattered around him and splattered with his blood. Neighbors rushed out, grabbed a mattress and loaded him onto it in the back of a station wagon, but Evers died shortly after arrival at University Hospital—a white hospital, if you can imagine such a thing, where his black physician was not allowed to attend to him.
Before the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy—indeed, before our nation ever could have come to grips with a crime of this nature and the persistent ring of those gunshots—there was the assassination of Medgar Evers. I fear that our schoolchildren today don't know that. And it's not just the man or the name that should be remembered, but the important work he did. He was truly a selfless, heroic figure whose life and work—and ultimately, whose death—led to progress in the movement for civil rights.
Once, riding the subway in New York City, where I lived and worked most of my adult life, several young black men were seated near me, and one of them wore a T-shirt with the multicolored outline of Africa and three faces silk-screened around it—Malcolm, Martin and Mandela. I was standing just to one side of the group, and I had my briefcase in my hand, my jacket over my arm and my tie loosened, holding the railing on the E train on my way home to Hell's Kitchen from work. I was 28 years old. They were probably 23, 25. I leaned in toward them and nodded to the man in the shirt. "You're missing an important ‘M." His friends looked at me quizzically, and I said, "Medgar Evers. He was assassinated before Malcolm X and Dr. King." I won't say the young man in the T-shirt got in my face, but he was visibly riled, and started to stand up on the crowded train. One of the other men grabbed his arm as he was getting up, and said, "No, he's right. Medgar Evers. He's right." The guy in the shirt sat back down, but never broke eye contact with me. "Who are you to tell me my history?" he asked. "I wasn't trying to start anything," I said. "But it's not just your history—it's our history."
And it is. So sometime this week, if you have a moment, go online or (better yet) go to an actual library and read something about Medgar Evers. And if you have school-aged children, ask them if they know who he was, and if they don't, please tell them. He deserves two things that eluded him during his lifetime: our respect, and our thanks.
Reed Massengill is a widely published author whose most recent book is The Art of George Quaintance, published by Taschen.
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