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.
Mississippi media organizations played an essential role in maintaining the false perception of positive race relations in the state during the 1960s. Local officials presented an image of racial harmony and segregation as a voluntary act.1 Post-war era newspapers in the North and the South catered to white readership and rarely mentioned African Americans except in “Negro Editions.”2 The averaged newsroom was composed of a nearly all-white staff, but as nationwide desegregation efforts gained publicity in the 1950s and 1960s, Mississippi’s “closed society” was slowly crumbling. Medgar Evers helped reveal the truth about race relations in his home state.3
March 6, 1963 press release with handwritten edits from Evers and Aaron Henry to a Mississippi sheriff. Call number: Z/2231.000, box 3, folder 2 (Evers Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers, MDAH)
When Evers accepted the field secretary position with the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP in 1955, he was not only responsible for increasing membership in that group and investigating crimes against blacks, he also became a statewide spokesperson. Evers wrote many press releases and gave quotes to national news media. In a 1958 Ebony magazine interview, Evers expressed his love for Mississippi but also spoke of the trials that faced blacks in the state. “Now, when a Negro is mistreated, we try to tell the world about it,” he said.4 Evers and the NAACP publicized the facts ignored by mainstream media, shining a spotlight on the dire race situation in Mississippi. More and more, Evers’ work put him in the public eye. His notoriety would grow five years later.
The popularity of television proved crucial to Evers and the NAACP’s efforts to publicize racism in the state. He was already supporting, organizing, and participating in direct action demonstrations, but reaching more Mississippians meant putting a face to his name. In May 1963, he filmed an editorial for broadcast at the WLBT studios in Jackson. This was a controversial move for not only Evers but the station as well. In Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television, Kay Mills writes that WLBT was a symbol of dominant white rule because blacks were historically barred from on-and off-camera positions.5 That changed when Evers’ speech aired.
What then does the Negro want? He wants to get rid of racial segregation in Mississippi life because he knows it has not been good form him nor for the state. He knows that segregation is unconstitutional and illegal. While states may make laws and enforce certain local regulations none of these should be used to deprive any citizens of his rights under the Constitution.6
Evers had always pushed boundaries, and his television appearance was a landmark in Mississippi history. He petitioned station owners many times over the years, and his persistence ensured that the black perspective was broadcast to the masses.
To learn more about Evers’ presence in today’s media and culture, visit: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2013/06/02/medgar-evers-arts/2378249
1James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1964), 4.
2David R. Davies, ed., The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists and the Movement )Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), 5-8.
3Michael V. Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 88.
4Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, eds., The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005), 116.
5Kay Mills, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Televison (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004), 14.
6Evers-Williams, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, 282.