Myrlie and Medgar Evers' civil rights struggle still matters today
After graduation, the couple moved to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. As Medgar Evers worked selling insurance for the black owned Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company, traveling through the Delta, visiting the homes of African American sharecroppers, he learned more and more about the bleak conditions of Mississippi’s working poor. On a land that was rich, black families squeaked by on just pennies a day while landowners prospered, pocketing federal farm subsidies and cheating their workers. It was this racial and economic injustice that pushed Evers toward leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, working to recruit new members and start new chapters throughout the state. He believed that organizing a grassroots movement would be the only way to change Mississippi.
When Medgar and Myrlie Evers moved to Jackson, Mississippi to work full time for the NAACP — he serving as the first state field secretary in Mississippi, and she working as secretary for the field office — they gave themselves over to the movement.
Medgar Evers worked to organize voter registration drives, and recruit new NAACP members among working class black men and women throughout the state. He would also be called to do the dangerous work of investigating incidences of racial violence. Under Evers’ leadership, NAACP membership in the state nearly doubled, even as the newly founded White Citizens Council tried to repress the organization, making NAACP membership illegal, and attempted to target and destroy its members; and as racial violence targeted black leadership throughout the state. As Myrlie recounted in her autobiography, it was sometimes a struggle to be married in the face of the stress and terror of the movement.
In 1960 the Mississippi movement won a clear political victory when James Meredith became the first black man admitted to the University of Mississippi. It was an important personal victory for Evers, who had applied to their law school and been rejected on a bogus technicality in 1954. However, the victory accelerated the threats against the Evers family. It was in this climate of great change and frightening repression, that Medgar Evers was shot down on June 12, 1963, just steps from his front door.
In the year after his death, the struggle in Mississippi would bear fruit as the Freedom Summer of 1964 began. It would be Mississippians who would demonstrate the horrors of violent disfranchisement to the nation, and move the country toward the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within a decade of Medgar Evers’ murder, courthouses across Mississippi were finally forced to add black voters to their rolls, and black ballots could finally be cast on election days.
Myrlie Evers recalled being filled with rage in the wake of her husband’s murder, but she remained determined to continue fighting for their cause. Myrlie Evers channeled her anger into the movement, working tirelessly in the effort to make sure that his death was not in vain, fighting to see that his murderer was convicted and imprisoned.
Evers’ killer was heralded as a hero in among many in white Mississippi in 1963, supported by the White Citizens’ Council and visited during the trial by Mississippi’s governor, Ross Barnett. The sham trials held in the 1960s ended in hung juries.
Even as her grief nearly overwhelmed her, Myrlie Evers found her equilibrium by moving out of Mississippi in order to raise her children in relative safety. She remarried, but she never stopped seeking justice for her late husband. Because of Myrlie Evers-Williams’ determination, Medgar Evers murderer was eventually convicted in 1994 after thirty years. After the trial Evers-Williams continued to fight to protect Medgar’s legacy by serving as chairperson of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998, steering the organization toward greater stability and visibility as it moved toward a new century.
Reflecting on her husband after the conviction, Myrlie Evers-Williams suggested, “perhaps he did more in death than he could have in life. I think he is still among us.”
So it is fitting in this moment, when thousands waited in lines for hours, when activists battled unfair voting rules in courts from Pennsylvania to Ohio, when people of color, and young women and men voted in record numbers, that Myrlie Evers-Williams should speak and her late husband should be remembered. He is indeed still among us.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor at North Carolina State University. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfBLMKelley