To Medgar, With Gratitude

Fifty years ago, early on the morning of June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, 37, arrived home, exhausted, not just from another day of activism, but under the weight of the Movement and threats against his life. Engulfed by utter exhaustion, Medgar broke his own cardinal rule. Instead of sliding out of the passengers' door and directly onto the carport covered porch to safely enter his home, Medgar walked to the trunk of his car at the end of the driveway. In his family's exhaustion, the porch light had been mistakenly left on.

Medgar was fully exposed and fully visible. A shot rang out. Medgar was wounded. Nearly an hour later, he was dead.

The 1960s were a decade of political and social unrest, defined historically, in part, by its plethoric violence. Weighing most heavily upon our collective national memory are the decade's multiple assassinations: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963, Malcolm X in New York (Harlem), New York, February 21, 1965, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in Los Angeles, California, June, 5, 1968. Unfortunately, often falling from the plane of our remembrance is the assassination of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.

To be sure, Hollywood has treated the tragedy of Evers' assassination through such cinematic offerings as The Ghosts of Mississippi, and most recently, The Help. Numerous songs, plays, and poems have been dedicated to his memory. An airport, college, and a ship bear his name. And in a tremendous nod to history, President Barak Obama invited Medgar Evers' widow, Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, to deliver the invocation at his second presidential inaugural. Yet Medgar Evers still does not get proper recognition as one of America's greatest leaders for social change.

A veteran of World War II, Medgar Evers was a native Mississippian. Mississippi had the notorious reputation as the nation's most violent state during the Jim Crow era. Nonetheless, in 1954, Medgar accepted an invitation to serve as the first Field Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi. It proves difficult to adequately convey the level of courage required for a black man to accept such a prominent civil rights position in Mississippi in that era. A search for three missing civil rights workers a year after Medgar's death yielded the discovery of eight black bodies, five of which were never identified.

As Field Secretary, Medgar organized countless boycotts, helped to establish new chapters of the NAACP in Mississippi, and provided support and leadership during James Meredith's infamous attempt to integrate the University of Mississippi. Medgar also dedicated many hours investigating the tragic murder of fourteen year-old Chicagoan Emmitt Till on August 28, 1955, in Money, Mississippi. Medgar Evers' efforts laid the groundwork for the on-going struggle for voting rights in the years following his assassination. The strength of the Mississippi NAACP, fueled by the work and courage of Evers, proved essential in future endeavors to secure voting rights for blacks in Mississippi.

Despite the countless and continuous threats against his life, including, but not limited to almost being run over by a car just five days before his assassination, Medgar remained fortified in his commitment to freedom and justice. Just as he had served his country honorably in war, Medgar served his country honorably until his death to secure the fundamental right of all American citizens; the right to vote.

The Evers home is now a museum owned by Tougaloo College. It was restored during the filming of Ghosts in 1996 and later donated to the college. Stay for a small plaque on the home, there is nothing readily present or visible that acknowledges the significance of what transpired at the home. However, when I first led a group of college students from Dallas to tour Evers home almost ten years ago, one student inquired as to where Medgar Evers body finally rested after he had been fatally wounded. The guide responded, "You are standing in his blood."

Faster than lightening, our eyes descended upon the pavement. Faster than that, the blood left the face of the inquirer as we all stared. There it was, a faint rust-colored imprint upon the ground, one that our guide stated looked more prominently red during rainfall. As courageous of a man as Medgar was, his cold, calculated murder was a portrait in cowardice. As an additional sin of the era, Medgar was denied immediate medical attention. He was a black man, and white surgeons in that era, especially in Mississippi, did not touch black people.

Much like Abel in the Book of Genesis, I imagine that Medgar's blood still calls out to God.

Still, the greatest injustice to Medgar Evers' legacy is not his death, but the failure of subsequent generations of Americans to tell his story. Most tragically with regard to our first visit to Jackson, our dear guide relayed that when speaking at a Jackson area school she inquired of the youth if they knew who Medgar was.

They responded that it was the name of a street that ran through the city.

Dr. King would say of Medgar's death,''The brutal murder of Medgar Evers came as shocking and tragic news to all people of good will.'' That his name does not bear more remembrance or inspire more gratitude should also come as shocking and tragic news.

To you, Medgar, I extend my sincerest gratitude.

Rest well.