Medgar Evers: Direct Action

On June 17, 2013, in Archives, by Dorian Randall
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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.

In the 1960s Mississippi segregationists maintained a firm grip on social, political, and economic power. Evers intended to practice his rights as a U.S. citizen after being honorably discharged from the army by tackling the vote, which represented “the most tangible symbol of social and political equality.”1 In 1946 Evers, his brother Charles, and a group of friends decided to cast their ballot in the Democratic primary election where segregationist senator Theodore G. Bilbo sought re-election. Although they were allowed to register without incident, on election day a white mob prevented them from voting. This experience fueled Evers’ work in the NAACP as the organization worked to increase black voter registration. Other demonstrations against inequality followed as Evers grew into a civil rights leader.

Evers participated in, supported, and helped organize “direct action” demonstrations over the course of his NAACP career. From 1959 to 1960, Evers assisted his friend and NAACP member Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., who attempted to desegregate Biloxi’s beaches in a series of “wade-ins.” After notifying Evers of his intent, Dr. Mason and a group of swimmers made several trips to Biloxi’s public beaches in 1959. An April 1960 visit proved crucial to the desegregation effort as the swimmers were attacked by angered whites. Evers later recounted the incident in a series of reports to the NAACP national office in New York:

 As a follow-up to the report of April 24, 1960, in regard to the Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Gulf Coast demonstrations, I’m happy to report that members of our Gulfport and Pass Christian Branches participated on Sunday, April 24, 1960, in a movement to desegregate the beaches on the Gulf Coast…The quick action of the members of the Gulfport Branch, under the leadership of Dr. Felix H. Dunn, and Dr. Gilbert R. Mason, prompted an immediate inquiry from the Federal Bureau of Investigation…Dr. Mason and other members of the Negro citizenry of Biloxi would like for the N.A.A.C.P. to act in their behalf as a friend to the court, in the suit to open the beaches to all.2

Desegregating beaches wasn’t Evers’ only concern.

He also believed in the power of the youth. The national NAACP leadership did not fully support direct action tactics, but the youth pressed for more demonstrations. Evers had earned the respect of black youth through his support of the Jackson Youth Council and Touglaoo Nine, the black students who integrated the whites-only Jackson Municipal Public Library in March of 1961. He provided the young activists “opportunities to play prominent roles in the overall struggle, and he sought their advice on important issues such as strategies and resistance measures.”3

This WLBT news clip depicts Evers investigating and negotiating the terms of release for black youth protesters held at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson circa 1961. Call number: MP/1980.01, reel D18 LCN 872 (MDAH)

In 1963 Evers worked with Tougaloo College professor John Salter, whom he met at an NAACP dinner, to organize youth for a boycott of Capitol Street businesses.4 During the Woolworth’s sit-in on May 28, 1963, Evers contacted the national media and coordinated activities from his NAACP office. On June 1, he was even arrested for picketing in front of the Woolworth’s. Evers had risen as a strong leader and organizer who inspired youth such as Tom Beard to actively pursue their rights as natural born citizens.

Tom Beard was just eighteen years old when he participated in the Woolworth’s sit-in. He was inspired by Evers’ determination and looked to him as a father figure. For Beard, Evers was a man of action who was willing to say what he himself could not. Beard once stated that he “just appreciated him having the guts to start something at the time.”5

 


1 Michael Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 38.

2 Myrlie 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), 188-90.

3 Williams, Medgar Evers, 203.

4 M.J. O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 27.

5 O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved, 68.

Medgar Evers: The NAACP and Investigations

On June 11, 2013, in Archives, Artifacts, by Dorian Randall
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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.

If the years were stamped with the names of the murdered, the months were inked with those of the beaten and maimed. Affidavits testifying to the routine cruelty of white Mississippians toward Negroes piled up in Medgar’s files. Beach represented an hour, a day, a week of Medgar’s life in a surrealist version of Hell. 1

From the time he was a boy, Medgar Evers witnessed how white brutality shaped fear among blacks. Willie Tingle, a family friend who allegedly winked at a white woman, was dragged through the black area of Decatur to the local fairgrounds, where a white mob hung his body from a tree and riddled it with gun shots.2 They left Tingle’s clothing at the fairgrounds, a constant reminder to Evers of the terrible consequences for any perceived transgression, however small. Evers would later investigate many similar incidents of brutality as field secretary of the NAACP.

Binoculars and flashbulbs. Items such as these would have aided him in his investigations of civil rights violations. Accession number: 2004.21.16 (Medgar Evers Collection)

Binoculars and flashbulbs. Items such as these would have aided him in his investigations of civil rights violations. Accession number: 2004.21.16 (Museum Division Collection)

Medgar’s wife Myrlie often feared for his safety: The Telephone would ring, and Medgar would be off on a dangerous trip to a dangerous investigation that would lead, in the end, to bitter frustration.3 During these trips, Evers often disguised himself in army fatigues or as a sharecropper, and on several occasions, cars pursued him as he drove out of town. However, Evers continued to put himself at risk in his quest for justice, investigating the murders of Emmett Till, George Lee, and many others. One case involved a young pregnant woman courageous enough to speak out against police brutality.

 

The first page of the affidavit of Beatrice Young before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights on February 28, 1957. Call number: Z/2231.000/S, box 2, folder 4 (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers)

The first page of the affidavit of Beatrice Young before the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights on February 28, 1957. Call number: Z/2231.000/S, box 2, folder 21 (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers)

In a letter to Evers, Beatrice Young described the violent attack at the Hinds County Jail that led to her miscarriage in 1956. Young had been arrested without reasonable cause and savagely beaten by police officers. Evers took on the case and prepared Young for an appearance before the U.S. Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights in February 1957. In a report to NAACP headquarters, Evers commended Young on her poise and courage, writing that her appearance before the committee “once again spotlighted the State of Mississippi in the eyes of the world” and that she “may have paved the way for stronger civil rights legislation in the future on police brutality and infringement of constitutional rights by officers of the law.”4 When she returned home, Young faced harsh criticism and “intense economic sanctions from the white community due to her testimony,5 but her act of courage, as well as Evers’, brought greater awareness to the situation in Mississippi.


1Myrlie Evers and William Peters For Us the Living (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 205.

2Michael V. Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 25.

3Evers, For Us the Living, 203.

4Medgar Evers, “ Annual Report, 1957, Mississippi State Office, N.A.A.C.P,” in The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, ed. Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005), 82.

5 Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, 150.

Medgar Evers: The NAACP and School Desegregation

On May 29, 2013, in Archives, by Dorian Randall
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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.

A letterregrading school integration petitions in five Mississippi cities dated July 11, 1954.

A letter to regrading school integration petitions in five Mississippi cities dated July 11, 1954. Accession number: Z.2231.000.002, box 2, folder 7 (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasely Papers)

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.

A letter from NAACP general counsel Robert Carter concerning Clyde Kennard dated October 9, 1959. Accession number: Z.2331.000.001

A letter from NAACP general counsel Robert Carter concerning Clyde Kennard dated October 9, 1959. Accession number: Z.2331.000.001, box 2, folder 10 (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers)


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 All: 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.

Medgar Evers: Family and Hobbies

On May 8, 2013, in Archives, by Dorian Randall
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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.

Medgar and Myrlie Evers smiling on a couch.

Medgar and Myrlie Evers smiling on a couch. Accession number: Z.2331.000.S (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers)

 

Evers with his children, Darrell Kenyatta and Reena.

Evers with his children, Darrell Kenyatta and Reena. Accession number: Z.2231.4.008.S (Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Papers)

Medgar Evers was dedicated to improving the quality of life of impoverished and disenfranchised African Americans in Mississippi. His work as an insurance salesman with Magnolia Mutual in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, not only prepared him for his work as a field secretary for the NAACP, it gave him a heightened sense of commitment to family. In his book Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr, Dr. Michael V. Williams discusses the degradation Evers saw in the Delta and how it helped him develop a “personal awareness of his familial responsibilities and obligations.”1 This dedication was especially strong after the birth of his first child, Darrell Kenyatta, for whom he was an example of “loving roughness,” while being a source of tenderness for daughter Reena.2

Evers had always worked long hours, but his commitments gradually increased in 1962­–63 with James Meredith’s integration of Ole Miss and youth protests in Jackson, Mississippi. His family urged him to rest. In one instance their youngest son, James Van Dyke, broke into song to encourage Evers to take time off. Evers hugged him and said, “That’s Daddy’s boy…That’s all I needed to make me get right up and go out and do a good job today.” 3 Myrlie Evers admired her husband’s diligence and love for Mississippi, but knowing that he needed to relax, she encouraged him to go hunting and fishing:

“He loved his state with hope and only rarely with despair. It was his hope that sustained him. It never left him. Despair came infrequently, and a day of hunting or fishing dispelled it. The love remained.”4

2004.21.1ab

Hunting knife and scabbard. Accession number: 2004.21.1ab (Museum Division Collection)

This artifact, a hunting and fishing knife belonged to Medgar Evers and was found in his desk drawer in the NAACP office after his assassination. His initials, “MWE,” are carved into the leather scabbard. This knife is currently on display in the exhibit “This is Home”: Medgar Evers, Mississippi, and the Movement in the William F. Winter Archives and History Building.


1 Michael V. Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 61.

2 Myrlie Evers and William Peters For Us the Living (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 117.

3 Evers, For Us the Living, 278.

4 Evers, For Us the Living, 3.

 

 

Medgar Evers: A Legacy of Hope

On April 30, 2013, in Archives, Film, by Dorian Randall
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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 at an unknown location, circa 1959.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History will host a series of events and exhibits to commemorate the legacy of Medgar Evers. As part of the History as Lunch Series at the Old Capitol Museum, Myrlie Evers,widow of Medgar Evers, and Mississippi State University professor Michael V. Williams will speak about Evers’ life and work. The Eudora Welty House will also feature an exhibit examining the relationship between Evers’ assassination and Welty’s writing.

Medgar Wiley Evers was one of the strongest voices in the Civil Rights Movement. Evers was born June 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi, to a large family. After serving overseas in World War II, he was honorably discharged as a sergeant of the U.S. Army. Evers completed high school at Alcorn in 1946 and started college in 1948 where he met his future wife Myrlie Beasely in 1950 and also built leadership skills that he would later use as the first field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for Mississippi. His work with the NAACP included investigating discrimination and racial violence of all kinds against African Americans across the state. After many years of service working for the equality for all Americans, Evers was mortally wounded shortly after arriving home on June 12, 1963.

For more information about the exhibits and events, visit: http://mdah.state.ms.us/senseofplace/2013/04/11/life-of-medgar-evers-commemorated/