Remembering Medgar Evers: A courageous fallen leader

On this day: In June of 1963:

One of the most seminal moments in American history began on the previous evening of June 11th. President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation in a solemn and serious televised speech on what he called the most pressing domestic issue of the day. The Negro’s struggle for civil rights. Referring to it as “a moral issue”, the president revealed that he would soon direct the U.S. Congress to enact landmark civil rights legislation. Within hours after the conclusion of the speech, NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers was gunned down by a vicious racist sniper in the driveway of the Evers home in Jackson Mississippi.

The President and the Martyr

For most of today’s generation, this anniversary will seem far removed and antiquated. But for those of us who came of age in America during the 1950s and 1960s, this date marks a milestone of tremendous social and historic significance. For it was President Kennedy’s profoundly moving speech that grabbed this nation by its collective collar and spoke frankly and eloquently about the issue of Civil Rights. A few hours later, the nation watched as two concomitant and cataclysmic events collided and altered the course of history for the American Negro.

During his campaign for the presidency, and early on in his administration, John F. Kennedy had been hesitant in showing his support for the Civil Rights Movement for fear of antagonizing Southern voters and the Congress. But in recent turbulent months that had seen unrelenting turmoil in the Deep South, images of White hatred reached him on a human and visceral level, and he had finally come on board with Civil Rights leaders in the struggle for racial equality. During the troubling summer of 1963, the president had been “sickened” by images of snarling police dogs and fire hoses being used on demonstrators, and by the sight on national television of Alabama Governor George Wallace’s stubborn and theatrical confrontation with Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach on the steps of the University of Alabama. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sent 500 federal marshals to protect the two Black students who were attempting to register for enrollment. Many conservatives in Washington preferred to leave the racial problem in the hands of local officials, but the president soon came to the realization that “…America faces a moral crisis.”

He made a decision. The day had come when he would have to address the nation on the subject of Civil Rights. As the national media was being bombarded with images of peaceful demonstrators being attacked by vicious police dogs and high-powered water hoses literally sweeping human beings down the street, it was clearly time for federal intervention in the civil rights struggle.

With the George Wallace stand-off at the University of Alabama, the ongoing drama of the nation’s division over de-segregation came sharply into focus that June day. President Kennedy asked for fifteen minutes of television and radio air-time beginning at 8:00 p.m. Speaking both extemporaneously and from the hurriedly prepared text worked on with his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, he gave what is now considered the most decisive presidential speech on the subject of Civil Rights. Soberly telling a national audience: “…This is not a sectional issue… Nor is this a partisan issue. This is not even a legal or legislative issue alone. We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.”

Then the president got very specific: “I am, therefore, asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public-hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments. I am also asking Congress to authorize the Federal government to participate more fully in lawsuits designed to end segregation in public education… Other features will also be requested, including greater protection for the right to vote.”

This was what the Black community had been waiting for from the Kennedy administration. Official legislation would follow and at last, the President of the United States had chosen sides.

Images of the president during the speech.

President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Address on the evening of June 11, 1963.

A few hours later: On June 12, 1963, at 12:40 a.m.

Newspaper clipping of the murder and the Evers funeral.

Even in the aftermath of her husband’s murder, and while dealing with profound grief, Myrlie Evers had the strength to encourage the civil rights leaders not to postpone several planned national demonstrations. The leaders heard her “Don’t let this stop you!” plea, and they continued moving forward with planned marches that culminated with the Great March To Freedom in Detroit on June 23, and the historic March on Washington on August 28. Medgar Evers was a devoted young husband and father and a college-educated dynamic leader in the struggle for Civil Rights in his home state of Mississippi. After his return home from military service and after being denied admission to law school, he accepted a newly created position as Field Secretary at the local NAACP office. A position that was commonly known to have marked anyone in that position for certain death at the hands of white supremacists. On the evening of June 11, 1963, Evers had watched the president’s speech with several colleagues and civil rights leaders in his NAACP office. According to reports, he was genuinely encouraged by what he had heard from the president, and the group held further discussion for several hours with renewed hope for the future. Evers had recently sent Kennedy a telegram requesting executive intervention on behalf of the black citizens of his city, and now there was reason to believe that change was at last blowing in the wind. But at 12:40 a.m. on June 12, 1963, with his wife and three children waiting up to greet him, Medgar Evers was shot in the back with a rifle as he stepped out of his car in the driveway of his home. Although the assassin left a sloppy trail of clues that resulted in his quick arrest, two separate trials ended in a hung jury.

The president’s reaction to Evers’ murder was one of extreme sorrow and dismay. According to his staff members, he had been aware of Evers’ work in Mississippi. This horrific act was the catalyst to Kennedy’s increased awareness and personal involvement in the civil rights struggle.

OVER 30 YEARS LATER: Medgar Evers’ wife and partner in the civil rights struggle, finally achieves a promise kept.

A triumphant Myrlie Evers with her daughter Reena Evers.

Through the unimaginable and soul-stirring determination and due diligence of his wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar Evers’ assassin was finally brought to justice. Her tireless efforts resulted in bringing the vile, racist white supremacist and Klansman, Byron De La Beckwith, to trial for the third time — 30 years later. Two previous trials had resulted in hung juries, but in 1994, justice prevailed at last and he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment where he later died.

Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, a much sought-after speaker.

Myrlie Evers: More than “the widow of…”

Had he been allowed to live out the rest of his extraordinary life, Medgar Evers would be celebrating his 97th birthday next month. But his wife and children have kept his legacy alive and current as the spirit of his achievements and the profound significance of his ultimate sacrifice live on.

Life-size bronze sculpture of Medgar Evers by sculptor Thomas Jay Warren, at the Medgar Evers Memorial on Medgar Evers Avenue in Jackson, Mississippi.

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