Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyrby Michael Vinson Williams
Civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers was well aware of the dangers he would face when he challenged the status quo in Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s, a place and time known for the brutal murders of Emmett Till, Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, and others. Nonetheless, Evers consistently investigated the rapes, murders, beatings, and lynching's of black
Civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers was well aware of the dangers he would face when he challenged the status quo in Mississippi in the 1950s and '60s, a place and time known for the brutal murders of Emmett Till, Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, and others. Nonetheless, Evers consistently investigated the rapes, murders, beatings, and lynching's of black Mississippians and reported the horrid incidents to a national audience, all the while organizing economic boycotts, sit-ins, and street protests in Jackson as the NAACP's first full-time Mississippi field secretary. He organized and participated in voting drives and nonviolent direct-action protests, joined lawsuits to overturn state-supported school segregation, and devoted himself to a career that cost him his life. This biography of a lesser-known but seminal civil rights leader draws on personal interviews from Myrlie Evers-Williams (Evers's widow), his two remaining siblings, friends, grade-school-to-college schoolmates, and fellow activists to elucidate Evers as an individual, leader, husband, brother, and father. Extensive archival work in the Evers Papers, the NAACP Papers, oral history collections, FBI files, Citizen Council collections, and the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission Papers, to list a few, provides a detailed account of Evers's NAACP work and a clearer understanding of the racist environment that ultimately led to his murder. Selfless dedication marked the life of Medgar Evers, and while this remains his story, it is also a testament to the important role that grassroots activism played in exacting social change during some of America's most turbulent and violent times.
"An important and readable study of this seminal leader and the history of the civil rights movement." --Publishers Weekly
"Williams's work tops what have been too few head-on examinations of the substance and significance of this martyr's sacrifice, a man who demonstrated the truth he liked to repeat: 'You can kill a man, but you can't kill an idea.' General readers and scholars will benefit from reading this work..." --Library Journal, Nov 2011
“The first substantial scholarly biography of Medgar Evers . Will be the standard reference for some time to come.” --Journal of Southern History
"Masterful Williams's great achievement here is in recognizing that Evers was more than just a symbol of resistance. With Mississippi Martyr, he has written the seminal work on the life of Medgar Wiley Evers." --Brent Riffel in Arkansas Review, 2012
"Americans remember Medgar Evers--if they remember him at all--as the black leader gunned down the night President Kennedy made his famous civil rights speech. But Evers was much more than that, as Michael Williams makes clear in this marvelous biography. Long before the TV cameras and newsmen descended on the Magnolia State, Evers was risking his life on the back roads of Mississippi, organizing local people to take charge of their destiny. A hero and a martyr, Evers was also a complicated man torn between his activist impulses and the conservative mandates of his NAACP bosses in New York. Williams captures Medgar Evers in all his complexity in this well written, solidly researched, important book." --John Dittmer, author ofLocal People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
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Medgar EversMississippi Martyr
By MICHAEL VINSON WILLIAMS
The University of Arkansas PressCopyright © 2011 The University of Arkansas Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Mama called him her special child"
A LINEAGE OF RESISTANCE
Mama called him her special child. —Carrie Elizabeth Evers-Jordan The values of any new generation do not spring full blown from their head; they are already there, inherent if not clearly articulated in the older generation. —Erik Erikson
DECATUR, MISSISSIPPI, settled in 1836, serves as the seat of Newton County. The city chose its name in honor of naval commodore Stephen Decatur. Incorporated in 1840, Decatur—like most cities in the Deep South —relied upon the work of African Americans to prosper. Despite Decatur's reliance upon black labor, its white residents demanded that blacks adhere to codes, written or otherwise, maintaining racial segregation. As African Americans challenged white hegemony in America, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, whites throughout the South resorted to more brutal means of domination and Decatur proved no different. After all, it was at the Decatur fairgrounds, Medgar Evers later recalled, where "a close friend of the family got lynched ... because he sassed back a white woman." Decatur, for African Americans, proved as dangerous as any other area where black people were willing to resist dehumanization. Here is where James and Jessie Evers moved to from Scott County, Mississippi. Decatur appealed to James Evers because of the opportunity to work in the sawmill industry and thus provide a better life for his growing family.
Medgar Wiley Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, on July 2, 1925, to James and Jessie Evers. From birth, he assumed a family heritage of social resistance within the varied social and political systems of white control, white-generated violence, and black economic exploitation. Taking into account the oppressive state in which they lived, the refusal of the Evers family to cower in the presence of segregation and white supremacy is quite remarkable. When we place that refusal in the context of a violent Jim Crow South, their resistance becomes all the more phenomenal. Although the term Jim Crow may have had its beginnings in song and dance, it eventually symbolized racial division, oppression, violence, and inequality for African Americans at the county, state, and national level. Decatur, like the rest of the South, was dedicated to racial separation and white dominance.
In 1925, Decatur was still a small town having fewer than 2,500 people. Its exclusion from both the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census, which only included "places" with populations between 2,500 and 10,000 inhabitants, verifies this assumption. In fact, in 1920 the whole of Newton County had a population of only 20,727 of which 6,957 were identified as "Negro." Whites in Decatur were determined to control the black population, and their resolve stiffened during the holiday season when whites and blacks congregated more often than any other time of the year. During the Christmas season, whites came to town to light fireworks and to enjoy the holiday festivities. African Americans, however, were denied the opportunity to be a part of the fireworks extravaganza. According to Charles Evers, the "Klan had a rule: 'No niggers allowed in Decatur around Christmas.'" In 1935, the Everses challenged this ban as James, armed with a broom handle fitted with a metal cap, led his boys into town and viewed the festivities without repercussions. Medgar grew up within this small-town environment of racism and oppression, and it had a profound impact upon his ideas regarding the meaning of citizenship. The Everses' close-knit family structure added to Medgar's understanding of the importance of unity and group support.
In addition to Medgar, the Everses also had six other children: Eddie, Eva Lee, and Gene, from Jessie's previous marriage, and James Charles, Carrie Elizabeth, and Mary Ruth. The Evers family lived in a quiet area of Newton County and got along well with both blacks and whites in the community. Although they "were a poor family ..., they were never destitute," Myrlie Evers recalled, "and they managed to take care of themselves without help from anyone. They took pride in that and in the respect in which they were held by the community generally, both white and Negro." The respect his father commanded from whites, combined with his refusal to cower in their presence, and the inner strength and religious devotion of his mother inspired Medgar to challenge the legitimacy of Jim Crow.
James Evers believed in hard work and led by example; he, at times, could be stern, abrasive, and "mean." Like most African American families (and families in general during the Depression years), the 1920s and 1930s forced family units to depend upon multiple sources of income to survive. James Evers, or Jim as most people called him, worked at a variety of jobs while Jessie took in washing, worked in white homes, and took in boarders to help meet the family's financial needs. No matter how desperate their economic situation, Elizabeth Evers-Jordan recalled in an interview that their father never allowed his girls to work for white folks. This rule of law within the Evers home served as a means of avoiding the potential for rape that dogged black women who worked under the ever-watchful eye of white men. Historian Danielle L. McGuire provides an excellent analysis of the various ways white men used rape as a horrific display of power and punishment, as well as a vile form of individual or group entertainment.
The Everses were self-sufficient, which is why the daughters never had to work for whites. Self-sufficiency, however, did not stop Elizabeth and her sisters from looking with envy at their female friends who did work for white families and had the money to show for it. Of the many business ventures the Everses claimed, they also owned a kind of store that sold hot food and other items to black and white patrons. Evers-Jordan explained that she and her sisters were allowed money at times, and this tended to placate their need for spending cash. In addition to the store, Evers-Jordan remembered that the Evers provided space for the only black barbershop in Decatur, operated by a Jim Thomas. The Evers family managed the store themselves, with the women conducting the day-to-day operations. The barbershop and beauty salon were business ventures the family rented out and collected monies on. Evers-Jordan remembered that her mother had beauticians as far away as Meridian, Mississippi, coming to Decatur to rent work space in the beauty salon. The beauty industry has historically occupied an important role in the black community. Barbershops, in particular, were vital to establishing and sustaining a group economy and provided black barbers with status in black and white communities alike. In addition to the barbershop and store, James developed several other business operations.
James Evers operated a variety of business ventures of his own. Charles Evers acknowledged that their father proved to be quite a proficient businessman who
owned his own property in Decatur, built and rented out two small homes on it, and kept a small farm. He raised cows, chickens, and pigs. Had a pair of mules. Grew vegetables for himself, and cotton to sell. He was a small lumber contractor, too.... Daddy had lumber contracts in Hazlehurst, Union, and Decatur, making sure lumber was dried right. He worked for our small family funeral home, too. We never had a whole lot of money, but Mama and Daddy made us appreciate what we had.
Medgar grew up surrounded by examples of manhood and self-sufficiency, which molded his independent character and cultivated a devotion to the welfare of humankind.
Elizabeth Evers-Jordan and Charles Evers, the last remaining of the Evers siblings, spoke often of the positive influence their parents had upon them and their siblings. Charles recalled that when it came to analyzing the character of men, their father taught him and Medgar "that most men are timid, measly, and mediocre. Be tough, and they'll fall in line behind you." This helps explain Medgar's often-domineering persona, which some interpreted as meanness. This characteristic often surfaced at the first hint of weakness on the part of African Americans in the face of white opposition. Medgar drew on many of his father's lessons, and the following words of advice best seem to have defined his attitude regarding the struggle for civil rights: if "you're scared, you can't do nothing. Show a coward some nerve, and you can back them down."
In a social environment that demanded meekness on the part of black people, men in particular, it was significant that James Evers stood as a man and, with consistency, maintained his dignity. As a consequence, Medgar never accepted the validity of a Jim Crow system. When he reached adulthood, Evers put into practice the aforementioned ideals of manhood and womanhood drummed into him by his mother and father. These ideals were bolstered by a family heritage of resistance, a heritage fully visible and hanging like ready fruit from the ancestral branches of both family trees.
The willingness to stand on the side of righteousness and to be self-sufficient were family traits passed down to James Evers. He, in turn, passed them along to his children. James's father, Mike Evers, had also proven to be business minded. Charles noted that his grandfather owned and "farmed two hundred acres of corn, peanuts, and potatoes out in Scott County, [which whites later took 'illegally' from him regarding an issue of unpaid taxes] just west of Decatur." He also pointed out that "Mike Evers was rough, fought a lot, and taught Daddy to have no fear. Daddy's mother, Mary Evers, was part Creole Indian, with long, straight hair and high cheekbones." Although Charles admitted that he could not remember a lot about his father's family, he knew that they were hard workers and fighters. In order to understand Medgar, Myrlie Evers-Williams notes, you have to go back to his mother. Medgar may have inherited his fighting spirit from his father, but his overall goodness, caring attitude, and deep concern for the welfare of others can be attributed to the influence of his mother.
Whereas the Evers patriarch could be rough, tough, and confrontational, its matriarch proved quite the opposite. Jessie Wright Evers was a communal-minded religious woman who had a reputation for feeding those in need and her house was always open to the less fortunate. Evers-Williams remembered an encounter that occurred at the Evers home very early one morning. When a stranger knocked on the door, "daddy Jim" answered it to find a man looking for Jessie because he was hungry and people had told him that she would provide him with food. Myrlie noted, with amazement, that Jessie got out of bed at 2:00 A.M. and cooked him something to eat. This type of human expression made an indelible impression on Medgar as a child and helped shape the type of person he became.
One cannot over emphasize the positive impact that women have on the ideological development of the boys in their family. The influence is stronger whenever a humanitarian element or devotion to community service is touted as a part of one's religious or social responsibility. The maternal grandmother of civil rights activist Andrew Young, who later served as congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also provided food to any person in need while Young's mother, Andrew J. DeRoche notes, continued "this tradition by taking casseroles to ailing or elderly members of the church." In both the Evers and Young families, religion and human expression and compassion went hand in hand.
Practiced religion was an important component of Jessie Evers's character, and it helped define her as a mother, wife, and individual. Although James remained a Baptist and served as a deacon at his church, Jessie belonged to the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). She proved a devout member of COGIC and sold the church the land to build on, Evers-Jordan recalled. She was a true servant of God. In addition to her religious strength and devotion, Jessie also claimed a family heritage endowed with a fighting spirit.
Much like James's mother, Mary, Jessie also claimed a Native American heritage. One of her grandmothers had been a "full-blood Indian" and her father a mulatto who, Charles recalled, had "once shot two white men and left town in the dead of night when someone called him 'a half-assed mulatto.'" In addition, one of Jessie's great-grandfathers named Medgar Wright, for whom she named Medgar, was a half-Indian slave who took no abuse from anyone nor allowed any misdeed to go unchallenged. The fighting spirit existed on both sides of the Evers family, and Jessie and James through their actions made sure their children were well aware of their family's heritage and its propensity for refusing to cower in the face of oppression.
Jessie never spoke much about her first marriage, but before marrying James she had been married to a man named "Nick" Grimm and they had three children together. After marrying James, Elizabeth noted that Jessie wanted to give her husband children of his own even though he claimed her three as his and had raised them as such. Her parents had been married almost eleven years, she recalled, before the birth of Charles. Elizabeth acknowledged that their parents had indeed been married a long
time [and] mama didn't think she [could] have any more children, but she wanted some more children—she wanted some Evers as dad said "I got you three ... those are mine too." She said, "well I want some Everses" because they was Grimms you know. And mom said she prayed and asked the Lord to bless her to have some more children. And so here come Charles—after eleven years—then Medgar, then Elizabeth (that's me), and then Ruth. But mama said "now Lord you can stop me now." [But it seemed as if once] she started having them Everses ... she couldn't stop.
With each successive child, the Evers developed a stronger sense of unity and interfamily dependency.
James Evers served as the center of a concentric circle of family independence. While discussing the soup lines that were provided in downtown Decatur, Charles remembered his father warning the family that if "the Evers family got in that soup line, I'd kill every one of you, and then kill myself." Elizabeth attributes their strong sense of self to the fact that they always had their own and never had to depend upon whites for anything. She took pride in the fact that during that time they owned about twelve acres and had "never lived on nobody's plantation." As a consequence of his independence, James Evers proved very influential in shaping Medgar's views on the system of segregation and the illegitimacy of ideals touting white superiority and black inferiority. In fact, Myrlie Evers remarked that the examples of manhood provided by James Evers influenced "Medgar and his brother, Charles, ... to test these [segregated] boundaries, to push against them, to attempt to widen them." Both parents instilled in their children the importance of working for what they needed and to depend upon themselves rather than white society to supply those needs.
While growing up the Evers children were taught to always work hard. We "had to work all our lives; we weren't allowed to have anything easy," Charles remembered. "And we were taught to give respect first and then we could demand respect.... So that's how we came up." As a means of maintaining family unity, James and Jessie demanded strict codes of personal and familial behavior from their children. Both were "very strict ...," Charles remarked. "They brought [us] up in, what people call now, the old ways and that was yes ma'am, no ma'am. [For instance,] you [could not] eat until the table [was] blessed." Education remained another important component of the Evers family structure. Both parents insisted that their children attend school and Charles recalled that playing "hooky out of school" meant that you would be punished when discovered. He admitted, however, that Medgar proved less confrontational and more committed to educational success.
Excerpted from Medgar Evers by MICHAEL VINSON WILLIAMS Copyright © 2011 by The University of Arkansas Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Arkansas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Vinson Williams is assistant professor of history and African American studies at Mississippi State University.
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