Remembering Medgar Evers

14 Jun
Myrlie Evers-Williams in "Eyes on the Prize"

Myrlie Evers-Williams in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers. Evers, a civil rights activist and the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, organized voter registration drives and boycotts in Jackson, Mississippi to fight the segregated system existing at that time. He was gunned down in front of his home on June 12, 1963. The man responsible for his murder, Byron De La Beckwith, was finally convicted of the crime in 1994.

Blackside devoted a segment of “Eyes on the Prize” to Evers’ story, “Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964),” that includes original interview footage with Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar’s widow.

Their son, Darrell Evers was also interviewed and both of these interviews are available in full online as part of the Eyes on the Prize Interviews: The Complete Series digital collection resource.

In her interview Myrlie Evers-Williams talks about her background, growing up in segregated Mississippi, meeting Medgar at college, and their life together.

Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi when Emmett Till was murdered and helped witnesses in that trial leave the state of Mississippi after testifying. Evers-Williams describes his role in that case,

Medgar played a very important role, I feel, in the Emmett Till case. As field secretary for the NAACP a part of his responsibility was to investigate murders. He and Amzie Moore and a few others dressed as sharecroppers, would change cars to trucks and what-not, go on the plantations, ask people, go into the communities and ask people information about the murderers or the accused murderers—what had happened—of certainly making contact with the local officials and getting the press out. And it was a very dangerous job at that particular time. Medgar was also responsible not only for finding witnesses but helping to get them out of town. And I remember one very distinct case where he used a casket, and put a person in a casket…in conjunction with a mortuary, and got the person out of town. Out of town, out of the state, across the border, to Tennessee, and then north.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Shortly after Medgar Evers’ death, Byron De La Beckwith, whose fingerprints were found on the high-powered rifle used to kill Evers and who was seen near the crime scene that night, was arrested and charged with the crime.  In 1964 there were two trials in the case but both ended in hung juries. At the time of the Eyes on the Prize interview, De La Beckwith was still a free man, and Evers-Williams talked about the first two trials,

Two trials were held for the accused assassin of Medgar; both ended in hung juries. And the whole case was very interesting insomuch as the way the accused killer was treated. He had a large cell that was open for him to come and go as he wanted to. He had television sets. He had typewriters. He had all, almost all, of the comforts of home. This man was also accorded a major parade along the route of the highway on his way home. People had banners that were waved, welcoming the hero. The accused killer also made a statement to the press that he was glad to have gotten rid of varmints. After the—oh, and I must say too, that the then-governor, Ross Barnett, actually made a visit to the accused during the trial, the first trial, and walked in the door when I was on the witness stand, stood, looked at me, turned and went over to the accused killer, sat down, shook his hand, said some remarks, and got up and went out. Also, the accused killer, after the second trial, ran for Lieutenant Governor of the state of Mississippi, and he stated that he was doing this to show his appreciation to the people of Mississippi for what they had given, the support that they had given him while he was incarcerated. Interestingly enough, the man who ran for, Governor was the prosecuting attorney.

It says a couple of things to me and I had mixed emotions about it all. One was that this was the first time in the state of Mississippi that a white man had ever been brought to trial for the murder of a black, and a black man. That was a step forward, a very small one, but a step forward. However, the fact that there were two trials, that this man was treated as a hero, and that everything was dropped, still said to me at that time—and I’m not sure whether it isn’t even at this day in time—that black is black. That perhaps the justice that is accorded other ethnic groups in the United States, and certainly Mississippi, is still not accorded that of blacks. We’re still fighting for first-class citizenship whether it be in life, or whether it be in death.

Interview with Myrlie Evers , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 27, 1985 for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Myrlie Evers-Williams fought for many years to get the case re-opened, and when new evidence came to light about jury tampering and official misconduct in the first two trials, the case was reopened.  In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the murder of Medgar Evers. De La Beckwith remained in jail until his death in 2001.

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