The life of Medgar Evers is synonymous with the civil rights struggle and his strong leadership in the movement. This series, written by Dorian Randall, will explore his life, work, and legacy using related collections at MDAH.
Description: This WLBT newsfilm clip depicts Evers seated at a desk possibly discussing a school integration attempt in Jackson Public Schools, circa 1962.
In the 1960s, segregation was deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the average Mississippian. Although Plessy v. Ferguson sanctioned the separate-but-equal doctrine, inequality between blacks and whites still remained, even in education. Medgar Evers knew that first hand from his hometown:
Decatur maintained a high school for whites but none for African Americans. White students traveled to school aboard well-equipped school buses while African American students walked to schools that were often ill equipped and in disrepair.1
That experience impacted his quest for equality in education. Evers' cherished goal was to become a lawyer, and with NAACP support he applied to the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1954.2 Although he was denied admission, Evers resolved to fight the deplorable conditions of black schools and work for school desegregation.
In 1953 Evers and two fellow NAACP members met with Walter Sillers, Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, about improvements for black schools. During the meeting Sillers, a Dixiecrat and segregationist, kept his back to them and made promises of new buildings, but only a few simple block buildings were built.3 A sign of hope came a year later, but disappointment soon followed.
In 1954 Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation, but the responsibility of expedient integration was left to the discretion of the federal district judges because of their proximity to the local issues.4 The segregationist establishment maintained the status quo. In June 1954 Mississippi governor Hugh White met with a group of black and white leaders to implement his "equalization within segregation program," which endorsed voluntary segregation. However Brown supporters and black leaders such as T.R.M. Howard still called for integration. Evers rejected the program and continued to canvass black neighborhoods to obtain signatures for school desegregation petitions.5 He even added his own children's names to a desegregation petition to the Jackson Separate School Board of Trustees in 1962.6 The threat of retaliation was high; white segregationists used brute force against blacks to deter support of integration. But Medgar Evers kept fighting.
In 1959 Evers assisted his friend Clyde Kennard, an NAACP member, who was denied admission to Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). Kennard had made several previous attempts to enroll at the university, and was arrested on false charges of reckless driving and possession of liquor after his last attempt. Kennard sought help from the NAACP, and the charges were dropped. In 1960 Kennard was arrested again and sentenced to seven years in prison for conspiring to steal several bags of chicken feed. 7 Upon hearing the verdict, an outraged Evers was held in contempt for publicly denouncing the court's decision. Both of Kennard's arrests were later revealed as a determined plot on the part of the college administration to prevent his enrollment. In 1962 Kennard was diagnosed with cancer, and his health rapidly deteriorated. Evers, distressed by his friend's condition and treatment by the authorities, barely contained his grief when giving an update about Kennard at an NAACP banquet.8 Kennard died in 1963, just one year after James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi, the university that Evers had once tried to integrate.
1 Michael V. Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 19.
2 John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 49.
3 Adam Nossiter, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2002), 41.
4 Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, 50.
5 Charles C. Bolton, The Hardest Deal of Al: The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980 (Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 2005), 79.
6 Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, 229.
7 Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, 80.
8 Myrlie Evers and William Peters For Us the Living (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 224.