Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Murder in Jackson—The Execution of Medgar Evers

Myrlie Evers kisses her husband in his coffin.

Late in the evening of June 12, 1963 fertilizer salesman/Ku Klux Klansman Byron De La Beckwith lay in wait outside a modest Jackson, Mississippi home. When Medgar Evers returned from a round of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) meetings and got out of his car carrying an armload of Jim Crow Must Go t-shirts, Beckwith shot him once in the back once with a 1917 Enfield .306 rifle.  The bullet tore through his body and ricocheted into his home. 

Evers’ wife and their three children rushed out to find Evers face down on the porch bleeding heavily.  He died within an hour at a local hospital.  His death, just hours after President John F. Kennedy had delivered a nationally televised speech on Civil Rights, became a flashpoint of the bloody struggle in the South. 

Evers was born in 1925 the son of a farmer and saw mill worker in Decatur, Mississippi.  Drafted into the Army in 1943, he fought in France and emerged from the war with the rank of sergeant.  

Like so many of his generation he used the G.I. Bill to get an education.  As a business major at Alcorn College, a state supported school for Black students, Evers was an athlete and student leader.  Before graduation he married fellow student Myrlie Beasley.  He got his B.A. in 1952. 

The Evers moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi where Edgar got a job selling insurance.  He also became involved in a local campaign to boycott service stations that would not allow Blacks to use their restrooms.  Soon he was the   President of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL). 

In 1953 he applied to the still segregated University of Mississippi Law School.  When inevitably rejected, he filed suit with the support of the NAACP.  The organization was so impressed with him that they appointed Evers the first NAACP Field Director for Mississippi. 

As his family grew to three children Evers spent the next decade as one of the highest profile Civil Rights figures in the state.  He launched an investigation into the lynching of Chicago teenager Emmet Hill, and was a vigorous supporter of Clyde Kennard, a young activist who tried to de-segregate Mississippi Southern College, was framed on bogus charges, and sentenced to seven years in prison.  After the trial Evers was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to six months in jail for calling the verdict “a mockery of judicial justice.” 

But Evers truly drew the wrath of the White Citizen Council—of which De La Beckwith was a founding member—for his work getting James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1962.  Threats against Evers and his family escalated.  In May1963 a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the family’s attached carport.  Myrlie put out the fire with a garden hose.  Evers refused to give in to threats, although he spoke of being a marked man. 

After the murder it did not take long to trace it De La Beckwith—he left the rifle behind with his thumbprint, was seen in the neighborhood by several witnesses, and boasted about the murder to his fellow Klansmen.  But despite overwhelming evidence, two all-white juries failed to convict him in 1964 and 1965 trials. 

Myrlie moved the family to the safety of Los Angeles where she became a businesswoman and twice a candidate for Congress.  After re-marrying as Myrlie Evers-Williams she served as a commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, and NAACP Chairwoman from 1995-98. 

All the while she fought to have the murder case against De La Beckwith reopened.  In 1994 at her urging prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter re-opened the case and with new evidence.  After thirty years the killer was finally convicted.  He died in prison in 2001. 

The story of Medgar Evers quickly entered the culture.  Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone all wrote and recorded songs about the murder.  Writers as varied as Eudora Welty and Rex Stout wrote fictional pieces based on the case.  PBS aired a made-for-TV movie about the case, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story starring Howard Rollins, Jr. and Irene Cara as Medgar and Myrlie Evers 1983. 

A better known theatrical film Ghosts of Mississippi by Rob Reiner, recounted the story of the final prosecution with Alec Baldwin as DeLaughter, James Woods as De La Beckwith, and Whoopi Goldberg as Myrlie.  As in so many Hollywood takes on the Civil Rights movement, the hero was not the black victim, but the noble White man. 

Jackson, Mississippi, a now Black majority city, has several times memorialized Evers—with a 1992 statue, the re-naming of a stretch of U.S. Highway 49, and changing the name of the city's air field to Jackson-Evers International Airport in 2001.

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