Friday, June 13, 2008

June 12

The day after Gov. George C. Wallace sought to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, a fertilizer salesman and Klan member named Byron De La Beckwith gunned down Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home. Just before 2:00 a.m. on 12 June 1963, Medgar Evers -- a 37-year-old father of three -- died at a local hospital.

Evers had few illusions about his life’s work. Several years before his death, Evers recalled his childhood in Decatur, Mississippi:
When I was eleven or twelve a close friend of the family got lynched. I guess he was about forty years old, married, and we used to play with his kids. I remember the Saturday night a bunch of white men beat him to death at the Decatur fairgrounds because he sassed back a white woman. They just left him dead on the ground. Everyone in town knew it but never [said] a word in public. I went down and saw his bloody clothes. They left those clothes on a fence for about a year. Every Negro in town was supposed to get the message from those clothes and I can see those clothes now in my mind's eye . . . . But nothing was said in public. No sermons in church. No news. No protest. It was as though this man just dissolved except for the bloody clothes . . . . Just before I went into the Army I began wondering how long I could stand it. I used to watch the Saturday night sport of white men trying to run down a Negro with their car, or white gangs coming through town to beat up a Negro.
A veteran of the segregated armed forces who fought in Normandy during World War II, Evers returned to the United States with a determination -- shared by millions of black soldiers and their compatriots -- to enjoy and exercise their full citizenship. He graduated from Alcorn State and sold insurance for a living, but he grew increasingly involved in the emerging civil rights movement, which was a deadly commitment in one of the most unreconstructed racist havens of the old South. Evers became involved in the investigation of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, and he organized economic boycotts, prayer vigils and nonviolent marches, all of which earned him the respect of national civil rights leaders and the enmity of segregation’s defenders. Evers, who was his state’s first NAACP field officer, had been targeted by white supremacists for nearly a decade before his death. His home was firebombed, he received teleophe threats on a daily basis, and he was chased by racist drivers who more than once tried to run him over.

In his final speech, delivered less than a month before his death, Medgar Evers expressed optimism that
the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point, here and over the world. Here in Jackson we can recognize the situation and make an honest effort to bring fresh ideas and new methods to bear, or we can have what Mayor Thompson called “turbulent times.” If we choose this latter course, the turbulence will come, not because of so-called agitators or the presence or absence of the NAACP, but because the time has come for a change and certain citizens refuse to accept the inevitable.
Byron De La Beckwith, refusing to “accept the inevitable,” shot Evers in the back and escaped justice for more than 30 years. At last convicted of the murder in 1994, De La Beckwith died of heart problems on 21 January 2001, the day after George W. Bush took the oath of office.

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