Medgar Evers: Legacy Challenged

Fifty years after the activist's death, landmark policies that he championed may be struck down by the Supreme Court.

Medgar Evers (YouTube)
Medgar Evers (YouTube)

(The Root) — Wednesday will mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and the timing couldn’t be more significant: Any day now, the Supreme Court could strike down a pair of landmark remedies owed in part to Evers’ activism.

Uncertainty hovers over observances that began at Evers’ grave site at 
Arlington National Cemetery last week as the civil rights community warily awaits rulings that might fundamentally change, if not outright limit, minorities’ access to college and participation in elections.

Before the end of June, the court will decide the constitutionality of race
 as a factor used in admissions at the University of Texas. The justices also will rule on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states and smaller jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing election procedures.

Some justices on the conservative-leaning court have openly questioned or criticized the continued need for special protections for minority voters. And although the court upheld racially conscious admission policies in 2001, 
multiple lower-court rulings and state laws have narrowed or banned such affirmative action practices at public universities.

Both cases threaten the legacy of Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in 1950s Mississippi, whose work became a model for many successful
 challenges of Jim Crow laws across the South. He was the first known African American to apply to the University of Mississippi School of Law; he helped James Meredith integrate the university as an undergraduate student; he sued the city of Jackson, Miss., to desegregate its public schools; and he called for equal access to city jobs and accommodations. Evers also registered blacks to vote.

The lawsuit challenging the Voting Rights Act also threatens the legacy of Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the wreath-laying ceremony for Evers at Arlington National Cemetery. Holder is the named defendant in the lawsuit because the Justice Department enforces the Voting Rights Act.

The Justice Department has aggressively used Section 5 to block a wave of
 Republican-led state laws over the past couple of years, such as photo-identification requirements for voters, arguing that the measures would disproportionately harm minorities.

Holder has defended his agency’s efforts and cites as one of his most important accomplishments the rebuilding of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division following the Bush administration. At Arlington last week, Holder praised Evers as a pioneer who laid the groundwork for many of the
 civil rights gains of the past 50 years.