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The life, death, and legacy of Medgar Evers

2013 June 11
by Mandy Mastrovita

This week, the legacy of civil rights activist Medgar Evers is being observed nationally; he was assassinated on June 12, 1963.

After requesting the assistance of the NAACP to file a lawsuit against the University of Mississippi upon rejection by its all-white law school, Mississippi native Evers was hired as the first Mississippi field secretary for the organization, where he served from 1954 until his death in 1963. In his position, Evers became an effective and formidable leader by adopting direct action methods of civil rights demonstrations to supplement the strategy of the national NAACP’s numerous court challenges against segregation.  During his leadership as NAACP field secretary, the organization’s officials helped publicize the Mississippi lynching of Emmett Till and protect witnesses who testified against Till’s murderers. Evers and the NAACP also played a key role in James Meredith’s desegregation of  the University of Mississippi in 1962.  In 1963, the year that Evers died, the NAACP had led efforts in Mississippi voter registration, attracted young people to the civil rights movement, and begun to organize mass demonstrations and boycotts in Jackson to protest against the city government’s failure to appoint a biracial commission to examine racial problems in the state’s capital.

Due to his prominent position, Evers and his family were regularly harassed and threatened. Amidst the momentum of the numerous civil rights demonstrations that he had helped organize, on the evening of June 12, 1963, he arrived home late after a meeting and was killed by white segregationist Byron De La Beckwith, who shot him in the back with a rifle. De La Beckwith was tried twice in 1964 for the murder of Evers, but both trials ended in hung juries; the jurors for both trials were all male, and all white. A third trial, based upon new evidence, was held in 1994. The jury for this was comprised of both African American and white jurors, and De La Beckwith was convicted of the first-degree murder of Evers; the verdict was upheld by Mississippi’s Supreme Court in 1997. De La Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

Evers, an Army veteran, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He was awarded the NAACP’s Springarn Medal, that organization’s highest honor. Many authors have written about his life, Medgar Evers College was established in Brooklyn, New York, and numerous landmarks around Jackson, including the  Jackson-Evers International Airport, have been named in his honor. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, remained committed to the civil rights movement, and served as the national chairperson of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998.

The Civil Rights Digital Library contains links to numerous archival collections, reference resources, and educator resources that feature Medgar Evers. These are available at http://crdl.usg.edu/people/e/evers_medgar_wiley_1925_1963/

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