On June 12, 1963, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith assassinated Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home.
Evers’ wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and their three children, Darrell, Reena and James, were all inside when they heard the shotgun blast. The children were 9, 8 and 3 years old, respectively. Their mother had allowed them to stay awake to watch President John F. Kennedy discuss the moral crisis in the United States.
In a riveting speech that touched on segregation, disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, state violence, mortality and unemployment rates, Kennedy called out the dehumanizing oppression that was suffocating black America—the same oppressive conditions in the same system of oppression that we are fighting to destroy today.
The Evers household was paying close attention because Medgar Evers was fighting against and risking his life to dismantle white supremacy in Mississippi. For Evers, the state field secretary for the NAACP, shattering a toxic system that was functioning exactly as intended was his life’s work.
“My father pulled up in the driveway,” Darrell Evers said to the Los Angeles Times in a 1994 interview. “We were ready to greet him, because every time he came home, it was special for us. He was traveling a lot at that time. All of a sudden, we heard a shot. We knew what it was.
“My mother went to the front door to see what was wrong,” Darrell continued. “And then all of a sudden, I heard her start screaming.”
Beckwith, the vile, violent coward that he was, shot Medgar Evers in the back with a high-powered hunting rifle, and the bullet tore through his chest. At the time of his assassination, Evers was carrying NAACP T-shirts that read, “Jim Crow Must Go.”
“As I was going out [of our house], I saw my father lying down in the driveway in a pool of blood,” Darrell told the Times. “I had a deep spiritual experience. I felt a power of soul like I had never felt before ... it was undeniable. At that point, I knew my father wasn’t that body that everybody recognized as Medgar Evers. He was something else that was much bigger.”
A local hospital initially refused to admit and treat Evers because of white supremacist Jim Crow laws. He was eventually admitted, but he died 45 minutes later.
“It was University Medical Center. They weren’t going to treat him because he was black,” Clarion-Ledger investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell told The Root.
In an interview, Dr. Albert B. Britton, Medgar Evers’ personal physician, told Mitchell that he had to tell authorities at UMC that the man with the shattered chest was Medgar Evers. According to Britton, Mitchell said, “They immediately treated him.”
In Myra Ribeiro’s The Assassination of Medgar Evers, she writes that Britton wanted to be the one to treat Evers, but “[UMC] was a white man’s hospital and Dr. Britton was black.”
It is uncertain whether the wasted time would have helped. Evers’ widow said that she knew her husband was gone when she first saw him stumbling around outside their home because half his chest was blown away.
Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to Evers’ assassination.
Twice in 1964, Beckwith was found not guilty by all-white, all-male juries. Before the jurors deliberated in one trial, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett shook hands with Beckwith, a unified white supremacist front.
Decades passed, but Myrlie Evers-Williams, a powerful and beloved scholar, activist and organizer herself, never gave up. Eventually, Mitchell’s stellar reporting at the Clarion-Ledger, and the work of his team, prompted a new trial. Beckwith was found guilty of first-degree murder in 1994 by a jury consisting of eight blacks and four whites and sentenced to life in prison.
He died in 2001 at 80 years of age.
The PBS documentary Spies of Mississippi locates Evers’ assassination squarely within the context of the white supremacist terrorism and surveillance that were so commonplace in the state.
As I’ve written previously on The Root, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission colluded with the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Council to terrorize black people in Mississippi, my family included.
Director Albert Jones placed my grandfather, an NAACP member and voting-rights organizer, under surveillance for being a “subversive” danger to fine white citizens who were “molders of their heritage.”
Evers’ assassination has always struck particularly close to home for me, not simply because I was born and raised two hours from where he lived, worked and died—not even because we both attended Alcorn State University—but because he could easily have been my father, or one of my grandfathers, or my grandmother Artimese Tarlton West, who was just as involved in the fight for justice and equity in Mississippi as the men in her life.
Mississippi has a history—and present—of radical black movements and black resistance; still, these good ole’ boys are used to operating in the shadows because too many people turn their backs and say, “Oh, it’s just Mississippi; that’s just the way it is.”
That dismissal is a mistake. This state is ground zero for health care discrimination, education discrimination and white supremacist violence. If you want to see how Dixiecrats and the GOP conspire, and why I say that white supremacy is a party crasher, look at Mississippi.
If you want to see how stigma and miseducation rooted in religion and respectability help maintain the drug war, look at Mississippi.
If you want to see how plantation tourism fuels an economy, how slavery can still keep a state afloat, look at Mississippi.
Through it all, black Mississippi organizers, activists, scholars, educators and journalists continue to put in that work just as our ancestors—like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Fannie Lou Hamer, Richard Wright and, yes, Medgar Evers—did before us.
Today, as we sit and think about Medgar Evers, we black people find ourselves in a political moment where we are once again grappling with the question, not whom or what are we willing to vote for, but whom and what are we willing to die for?
Evers did not know that he would be assassinated on June 12, 1963, but he knew that he risked being murdered for his work every single day—he persevered anyway.
May we never forget his legacy, and may we never stop saying his name.
“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” —Medgar Evers