An African-American civil rights activist who fought racial violence in Mississippi, worked to secure voting rights, and coordinated movements leading to desegregation of state educational institutions and public accommodations, Medgar Wiley Evers was born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi.
During World War II, Evers served in the Army in England and France where he experienced nonsegregated institutions and formed friendships with whites. Upon returning to Mississippi, he challenged the Jim Crow voting system in 1946 by registering to vote, but he was prevented from voting. He completed high school and graduated in 1950 from Alcorn College, where he played an active role in student organizations and athletics.
Evers promoted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) while working for an African-American insurance company. In 1954, he applied to the University of Mississippi law school. When his application was denied, he moved to Jackson to become the first Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, the only full-time civil rights advocate in the state.
During the 1950s he investigated racial violence against African Americans, helping bring national attention to the murders of George Lee and Lamar Smith and to the attempted murder of Gus Courts— all shot for attempting to vote or actually voting. He helped investigate the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till. He continued to investigate crimes and police brutality against African Americans in the 1960s. Aaron Henry summarized, ‘‘In most of these cases, we were not able to get punishment for guilty parties, but at least we got them into court and into the spotlight of public attention.’’
In the face of massive state resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, Evers encouraged action pressing for the integration of local schools, supported litigation that desegregated the University of Mississippi in 1962, and cooperated with Justice Department lawsuits that challenged state practices which denied voting rights to African Americans. He encouraged boycotts, demonstrations, and other activities aimed at desegregating public facilities.
Evers was convicted of criminal contempt for his criticism of the unjust conviction of Clyde Kennard. The reversal of Evers’s conviction by the state supreme court in Evers v. State (Miss. 1961) signaled a modest but significant retreat from judicial suppression of political speech. This case illustrates the important connection between the protection of civil liberties and the struggle for black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1963, Evers was murdered by a white supremacist. Despite overwhelming evidence, two all-white juries failed to convict, seemingly confirming the view that no white man could be convicted of killing an African American in Mississippi. Evers’s death galvanized public opinion, demonstrated the need for federal enforcement of civil rights, and motivated the adoption of new federal civil rights laws.
In 1994, Evers’s killer was retried and finally convicted of murder. The result symbolized the change in attitudes towards racial violence, proved the value of criminal justice in promoting racial reconciliation, and inspired the reopening other cold cases from the civil rights era.
Evers married Myrlie Beasley in 1951 and had three children with her. After his death, she became a prominent spokesperson for civil rights, serving as chair and interim president of the NAACP.
MICHAEL H. HOFFHEIMER
References and Further Reading
Bailey, Ronald. Remembering Medgar Evers. Oxford, MS: Heritage Publications, 1988.
Brown, Jennie. Medgar Evers. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1994.
DeLaughter, Bobby. Never Too Late: A Prosecutor’s Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case. New York: Scribner, 2001.
Evers, Medgar Wiley. The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches. Edited by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.
Evers, Myrlie B. For Us the Living. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.
Henry, Aaron, with Constance Curry. Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
Nossiter, Adam. Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers. Reading, MA: Addison- Wesley, 1994.
Voller, Maryanne. Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, The Trials of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Voting Rights (Compound)