Perhaps it seems that President Barack Obama is simply honoring the fifty-year anniversary of the death of Medgar Evers — with no greater symbolism implied — by inviting his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration for his second term in office. After all, many people believe that in the age of Obama, the problems of civil rights are in the past and we have entered a post-racial America.
However the election this past fall, with attempts to repress African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor with restrictive voter ID laws, shortened access to early voting, and limited access to the polls, reminded many of the fight for voting rights waged in the 1960s. In this moment, Medgar and Myrlie Evers’ story needs to be retold. Their lives remind us of how far America has come in the past half century, while cautioning us to protect those gains.
By recalling Ms. Evers-Williams’ journey to that podium, we recall our own journey as a nation.
Medgar and Myrlie Evers grew up in a state that did not recognize them as full citizens. Both were Mississippi born and raised in loving homes, yet they both learned at an early age that their lives would be devalued by the larger society.
Young Myrlie Beasley was shielded from most of the racial horrors around her; raised by her grandmother’s strict hand and her aunt’s encouragement. But she lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where society in the 1940s and 50s was strictly divided by race. In her autobiography she recalled the department store where black customers were barred from trying on clothes and had to line shoes and hats with paper to check their fit. She remembered the humiliation of segregated buses where black passengers were herded into the back behind “wire fencing” — leaving black passengers “crowded together like chickens in a coop.”
She recalled being terrorized by a small mob of white boys on her three-mile walk home from the junior high provided for black children; and she recalled organizing resistance to their taunts. She saw the world around her but never believed that she was really “less than.”
Growing up in rural Decatur, Mississippi, Medgar learned the hard lessons of race from his father, who tried not to bend in the face of humiliation.
The senior Evers didn’t make stepping off of sidewalks for passing whites a habit, even when local whites expected it. And he resisted being cheated by local whites after a conflict at the general store, fighting back against their threats of violence.
However, the violence that undergirded white supremacy could not be avoided. Medgar was just 14 when Willie Tingle, a resident of Evers’ hometown of Decatur, Mississippi was accused of insulting a white woman, and then dragged through the town, down the road in front of the Evers home, hung by a tree and then shot hundreds of times by a mob of angry white men. Young Medgar would see Tingle’s clothes, left behind as a bloodstained reminder by the mob, as he went hunting in the fields near his home. Yet Evers spirit of resistance was not dampened.
Medgar would go on to volunteer to serve his country in World War II, fighting for democracy abroad, though as a black veteran, he would be denied his citizenship rights in his own state.
Evers, along with his brother Charles and a group of black veterans registered to vote in 1946. Prior to their registration, no black men or women were registered in Decatur. From that day forward, threats came nightly, warning that they should not go to the courthouse on Election Day. Evers and the other vets did return to cast their ballots. Incensed at this direct challenge to white supremacy, a mob of local white men organized to stop them. Evers recalled that the men who forced him out of the courthouse at gunpoint were people that he knew: “ some fifteen or twenty armed white men…men I had grown up with, had played with.” The black veterans did not vote that day. But despite this defeat, Evers, like many men of his generation, was determined to change his beloved state and bring democracy to Mississippi too.
In spite of the risks, Evers pushed the limits proscribed by race. He used the GI Bill to complete his education; meeting his future wife Myrlie on the campus of Alcorn A&M Colllege. The couple wed in 1951, just a few years before the movement for civil rights would reignite throughout the South. The young couple would be at the heart of that struggle.