Today marks 50 years since civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. His murder and the subsequent trial sparked a cultural uproar and inspired national protests. A week later, President Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress, and the March on Washington would follow that summer. Commentator and Murray State history professor Dr. Brian Clardy reflects on how he came to learn about Medgar Evers - his sacrifices, and his legacy.
Growing up in South Fulton, TN, I had heard of the major icons of the Civil Rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young. I thought I had heard the entire story of how civil rights legislation had come into being. In fact, we heard about it every February during Black History Month... my school... not so much.
But one summer night in 1983, KET aired a made for TV movie that completely changed the way that I viewed that epic struggle. It was called “For Us the Living,” and it told the story of the life, career, and untimely murder of Medgar Evers. While Rollins vaguely resembled Evers, the acting was superb.
In the movie, famed actor Howard Rollins played the lead role of Evers, a World War II veteran and NAACP’s Field Secretary in Mississippi, which was the hotbed of racial tension in the 1950s and 1960s. It told the story of his courage, the love and support of his wife Merilee (played brilliantly by singer and actress Irene Cara), and his assassination at the hand of white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith.
My understanding of the history of the civil rights movement changed forever. I was 16 at the time and it forced me to do some serious reading and to ask questions of the adults who remembered those tense but optimistic times.
Evers was a one of the early civil rights leaders looking into the lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955. He was also instrumental in helping to facilitate the integration of the University of Mississippi. Like the grassroots leader that he was trained to be in his previous military life, he was determined to completely upend the system of Jim Crow racism... and it cost him his life.
The most poignant part of the movie was the assassination scene. His families sat in the living room watching President John Kennedy deliver his speech proposing federal civil rights laws in wake of the unfolding drama in Birmingham, Alabama. Medgar drove his car into the drive way and had just gotten out of the car... and then a bullet struck him in the back forcing him onto the pavement. Merliee heard the shot and saw her husband bleeding profusely and laying on the pavement. Her shrieks for help and those of her children pierced the dark summer sky.
Medgar Evers had become a martyr in the cause of human rights. He was 37 Years Old.
That part of the movie was the most striking to me. And if the lesson had ended with his death only, it would have been a permanent tragedy as if in a Shakespearean drama. The reality is that Evers' death shook the conscience of an entire nation to its core and his dream for an equal and just society was on the horizon.
So what did I take away from that movie and that moment?
The evil and oppression are real, but so is courage and the desire for freedom. That ordinary people can do extraordinary things if their minds are made up. That leaders can come from the grassroots as easily as they can from a giant spotlight. And finally, I learned that the dreamer may die, sometimes they are gone too soon, but the dream and desire for human freedom is timeless.
--Dr. Brian Clardy is an Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of Religious Studies at Murray State University. He is also the Wednesday night host of Cafe Jazz on WKMS.