Fifty Years: Remembering Medgar Evers
We are also posting this on a week that is now noteworthy for another event in Jackson, Mississippi, the May 21 primary victory of Chokwe Lumumba for Mayor. Lumumba, a founding member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, ran as a candidate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party on a platform of upholding human rights and strengthening the organization of Jackson residents, particularly the Black and working class majority, through the formation of People's Assemblies. In the last issue of Against the Current (#164), Robert Caldwell spoke with Chokwe Lumumba about his campaign and how it fits into the larger community initiative of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement's "Jackson Plan"--read it here.
Around 2 AM, September 1, 1961, my spouse Eldri and I crossed the Mississippi River into the Magnolia State's Closed Society. We were both in our mid-20s. Married a few weeks before at Superior, Wisconsin, where I had done an academic year of college teaching, we had come directly from my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona. We were headed to private and all-Black Tougaloo Southern Christian College, just north of Jackson, where a teaching position awaited me. A sociologist, I also had a fair amount of grassroots organizing under my belt and, before long, was to have much more.
At that point, the State of Mississippi was very close to police state status. With its sanguinary history, expanded and dominated by the post-1954 white Citizens' Councils of America ("State's Rights and Racial Integrity"), it was a total and pervasive segregationist complex, backed up by legions of white "lawmen" and white vigilantes. African Americans, almost half the population, were kept "down,” deprived of the right to vote or demonstrate, and mostly lived in or close to poverty. Most whites either supported the system or remained silent.
I came to know Medgar Evers, Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP, very well from 1961 to his death. Early after Eldri, and I arrived at Tougaloo, I was asked by an activist student, Colia Liddell (later to become Colia Liddell Lafayette Clark), if I would be the Advisor to the newly developed North Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP. Very small at that point, it was the only youth council in Jackson and environs. Of course, honored, I accepted. Not long thereafter, I become a member of the board of directors of the Mississippi NAACP, and, still later, as we entered a period of dramatic turbulence, chairman of the strategy committee of the Jackson Movement. I worked with Medgar closely. And I always had tremendous respect for him.
There was a significant strain of Choctaw Indian in his family background. I, myself, am one-half American Indian (Abenaki and Mohawk) -- and that was only one of a number of bonding factors that quickly developed between us.
Born in Newton County in 1925, he served in the European Theatre during the Second World War, was educated at all-Black Alcorn A&M, and in 1954 became the first NAACP Field Secretary in the history of the state. He wasn't really an organizer; was sort of a lone wolf who traveled lonely and mighty dangerous trails. He kept the few dissidents that existed in the state together in little groups that did as much as they felt they could do; persuaded people to attach their names to pioneer civil rights lawsuits; investigated and tried to publicize the many atrocities which occurred each week. And, on orders from the National Office, he sold NAACP membership cards.
Medgar was a very stable, very cool person. The only time that I ever saw him break down came in the Fall of 1961, at an evening dinner session of the annual convention of the Mississippi NAACP -- in the "Negro" Masonic Temple on Jackson's Lynch Street. It was first time we had met him -- and I was much impressed by his cheerfulness and optimism. The police were parked outside and, inside, the delegates from the scattered, and generally moribund NAACP units around the state, had finished giving their reports.
Medgar got up and began to speak on the matter of Clyde Kennard of Forrest County who, a year or so before, had been spirited off to the penitentiary on the trumped-up charge of receiving stolen chicken-feed -- all of this stemming from Kennard's several attempts to enter all-white Mississippi Southern at Hattiesburg.
As Medgar talked on about the Kennard case, his voice shook and, in what was obviously deep sorrow and frustration, he wept openly. With one accord -- and with many others weeping by this time -- all arose and began singing "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder." When the song was over, Medgar continued, outwardly calm.
The Evers family lived under constant threat of violence. In late September 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at any previously all-white Mississippi educational institution -- Ole Miss at Oxford. And, in the end, that took 30,000 Federal troops and Federalized National Guardsmen.
In the days just preceding the Meredith-Oxford crisis, there were all sorts of legal maneuvers going on in the Federal district and Fifth Circuit courts. Eldri and I went one Saturday night to the Evers home. We knew Medgar was probably in New Orleans where the Fifth Circuit was then grinding away, and we thought we should see his wife, Myrlie. We parked, went to the door, and knocked. Medgar's police dog was barking in the back yard (fenced up). There was no answer to our knock and I knocked again. Then the door opened, only a crack, and I could see a gun.
I called my name and Medgar opened the door, instantly apologetic. He had come to Jackson for the weekend. Inside the Evers home, furniture was piled in front of all of the windows. At least a half dozen firearms were in the living room and kitchen. The children were in bed and Medgar and his wife and Eldri and myself visited for a good while.
The barricaded nature of the Evers home was not uncommon for a civil rights person in Mississippi; what was uncommon was the fact that both Medgar and Myrlie were extremely calm. It was a very pleasant visit -- unusually so considering the fact that, next perhaps to Meredith, no one was any more prime a target in the Deep South at that time than was Medgar.
But he was cool: I recall leaving Greenwood in Leflore County with him one night at midnight -- and we left at 90 MPH -- with Medgar casually talking about a rumor he'd heard to the effect that a segregationist killer outfit in Leflore had installed infra-red lights on the cars, which could allow them to see the highway, but which couldn't be spotted by whoever they were following. By the time he finished discussing this, we were going about 100 MPH But he was driving easily and well and his talk was calm in tone, if not in content.
Medgar did not take chances, and no one could seriously accuse him of consciously or unconsciously seeking martyrdom. In the spring of 1963, he and I and several members of the Jackson Youth Council began to try to pull together a little Movement in Canton, north of Jackson -- the first efforts along those lines since the Citizens' Council had destroyed a tiny NAACP in Canton around 1955.
Our first meetings, which had been preceded by promises from, say, 50 or so to attend, featured turnouts of around five and six people -- but the little group (we met in the Sunday School room of an old church) began to grow slowly. The whole town was filled with terror; and there had been a number of killings of Blacks, none solved, in the fall of '62 and the winter of '62-'63. After we had several meetings, cars of whites began to cruise around, up and down the streets, in front of the church when we were in there.
Medgar always insisted on people not standing in the light; he, himself, stayed in the shadows -- took every safety precaution. He never left Canton at night unless I, or someone else, was in another car right behind him. He didn't want martyrdom; just wanted to keep on living and working.
No matter how discouraged he might feel, Medgar was always able to communicate -- or at least made an effort to communicate -- enthusiasm to those with whom he was working. In the early days before the Jackson Movement, our "mass" meetings were tiny affairs, yet Medgar always functioned as though the gatherings were the last crucial ones before the Revolution broke in Mississippi. He met each person on an equal to equal basis, smiled, joked, gave them the recognition of human dignity that each human being warrants.
By the time the meeting began, even the little handful of faithful felt it was worth holding. Never an orator, Medgar was a good firm speaker. By the time the meeting was over, he'd given it all he had, and the handful went home determined to do what they could. Those early meetings in Canton were among the most terror-stricken I'd ever seen -- but, even there, he communicated enthusiasm: talked about crops, then about voting.
But Medgar Evers could, privately, get discouraged. In his neighborhood lived many teachers. Most would scarcely talk to him, scared to death to even see him. Many of the clergymen in Jackson were afraid to exchange words with him. One evening Medgar came out to our home at Tougaloo; he'd spent the day trying to draw some teachers into the NAACP. They had turned thumbs down on it; had even told him, in effect, that the state's Black community would be better off without him.
He had had it that day and, I recall, talked then -- as he always did when he got discouraged -- about giving up the NAACP Field Secretary job and getting into the Ole Miss law school in the Fall. I think he would have ultimately gone to law school, and most likely at the University of Mississippi -- but it would probably have been many years before he would have stopped his field work. He'd get discouraged, privately -- never publicly, but a day or so later, he'd be back in form.
Our Youth Council had been growing very fast and steadily. We had also mobilized many students at Tougaloo. In the fall of 1962, we began the very effective economic boycott of downtown Jackson, and we did a tremendous amount of grassroots organizing to support the boycott -- which was successful in persuading Blacks and some quietly sympathetic whites from buying in the designated target area.
As this campaign continued into the Spring, we broadened it into an all-out desegregation campaign -- picketing, sit-ins, massive marches -- in May and June, 1963. The Jackson Movement was the first widespread grassroots challenge to the system in Mississippi -- and there was solid opposition from the Governor right on down. The State Fairgrounds had been converted into a huge concentration camp.
The National NAACP had reluctantly promised to back this major effort all the way. It sent key staff from New York to Jackson. Mass arrests and much brutality occurred each day. Lawmen from all over the state came into Jackson to join the several hundred Jackson regulars, the large Jackson police auxiliary, state police, other hostiles. Hoodlums from all over the state -- Klan-types, although the KKK as an organization was just formally beginning in Mississippi -- poured into Jackson.
The National Office of the NAACP, which had reluctantly agreed to support our Jackson campaign, became frightened -- because of the vicious repression and because it was costing money -- and also the National Office was under heavy pressure from the Federal government to let Jackson cool off.
A sharp split occurred on the strategy committee. Many of us, the youth leaders, myself, Ed King (a native white Mississippian who had recently returned to the state to become Tougaloo's chaplain), and other activists wanted to continue, even intensify the mass demonstrations. Others, the National Office people and conservative clergy, wanted to shift everything into a voter registration campaign (meaningless then, under the obstructive circumstances.) There was very sharp internecine warfare between our militant group and the conservatives.
Medgar, who had very enthusiastically backed mass direct action, was caught in the middle. As a staff employee of the National Office, he was under their direct control; as a Mississippian, he knew that only massive demonstrations could crack Jackson. (And we knew if we cracked Jackson, we had begun to crack the state.) The stakes were high and everyone knew it -- our militant faction on the strategy committee, the conservative group, the segregationists, Federal government.
The NAACP National Office began to cut off the bail bond money to end all large demonstrations; and also packed the strategy committee with conservative clergy. Medgar, obviously under increasingly intense pressure from the organizational bureaucrats, was functionally immobilized. Being Medgar, we felt his heart and mind were with the struggle in the field. He made no effort to bridge the quickly deepening gap and his involvement from that point on was minimal. The National Office was choking the Jackson Movement to death. It waned into almost nothing in the second week in June.
I saw Medgar late one afternoon, Tuesday, June 11. He was dead tired and really discouraged -- sick at what was happening to the Jackson Movement, but still too much an organizational staff man to openly challenge it. (Back in January, 1963, he had openly pushed the National Office; told New York to speed up the Jackson school desegregation suit -- of which two of his own children were plaintiffs -- and hinted if they didn't, he might resign his job. The National Office had speeded it up -- a little.) But in this situation, he didn't buck the National Office. We had a long talk and, despite the internal division, an extremely cordial one much like old times. He was more disheartened than I had ever known him to be.
Later that evening, we were all at a little mass meeting (the size of the meetings had grown as the Movement had grown, from a handful to 1,500 or 2,000 a night, but now, as the Movement waned, they were dwindling fast in size.) At this meeting, it was announced by the National Office staffers that the focus of the Jackson Movement was now officially voter registration and, although the boycott would continue, there would be no more demonstrations of any kind.
NAACP T-Shirts were being sold by Medgar who had no enthusiasm at all; said virtually nothing at the meeting; looked, indeed, as though he was ready to die. This was all tragic but much more tragedy lay directly ahead.
A few hours later, Medgar Evers was shot to death in front of his home.
His death was the resurrection of the Jackson Movement. Within hours, we had organized huge demonstrations which poured out onto the streets; the National Office had no alternative, under the circumstances, but to accept this. Police brutality and terror mounted steadily -- it was in a much grimmer dimension than it had ever been. Between 5,000 and 6,000 people, from all over Mississippi -- from places into which no civil rights worker had yet set foot -- came into Jackson for Medgar's funeral. A number of nationally prominent people were there.
Following Medgar's death, I had called Martin Luther King and asked if he could come to Jackson. Dr. King readily agreed and I picked up him and several of his staff at the airport.
At the funeral, much less was said about Medgar the man -- and much more was said about the career of the NAACP. Most in attendance at the funeral marched the two miles or so from the Masonic Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street.
This was the first "legal" mass civil rights-type march ever held in Mississippi's history -- and it was held only because we had let the power structure know we'd march anyway. (The National Office had really been against it; and two days or so after Medgar's death, the National Office was once again trying to stifle all demonstrations).
Once at the funeral home, the nationally prominent folk -- including the top NAACP leaders and others -- left the area. But a vast number of Black Mississippians stayed there, in front of the mortuary parlor into which Medgar had been taken following the funeral. Then we had the second huge demonstration of the day -- this one "illegal" -- a great throng of us pressing back down North Farish Street toward Capitol Street.
There must have been 2,000 law officers massed in and around the whole area -- and several hundred blocking North Farish Street at the junction with Capital Street. About 30 of us whom the police recognized, including Ed King and myself, were arrested; the police clubbed the others back down North Farish Street, fired over their heads, shot out windows.
Those of us who had been arrested were carried to the Fairgrounds. John Doar of the U.S. Justice Department, assisted by several National Office people, finally persuaded the remaining demonstrators to go home. The Governor called out the National Guard.
That was the largest demonstration of an "illegal" nature that has ever occurred in Mississippi. Shortly after that, the Kennedys got on the phone to the Jackson mayor several times, the National Office cut off any bail bond, Ed King and myself were both seriously injured and nearly killed in an extremely suspicious auto wreck and my car in which we were riding was completely destroyed. We were hospitalized and, while there, the Jackson Movement, essentially dead once again, was sold out by the National NAACP et al. for a few paltry tokens, none of which challenged segregation, and all of which the Mayor had offered at the outset of large demonstrations in May.
But our original economic boycott, via its own momentum, lived on -- draining the white Jackson merchants into grudging compliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
After the funeral demonstrations, the body of Medgar was out of Mississippi forever. But his death, and the many other forms of martyrdom in the Jackson Movement, ended a lonely era and began another. He had hardly been buried in faraway Arlington Cemetery when dozens, and then hundreds, of activists began to pour into Mississippi from all over.
There are now 50th Anniversary celebrations commemorating Medgar and a very minute number of Jackson Movement events (mostly our violently attacked Woolworth Sit-In of May 28, 1963) that are presently much in the Jackson scene these days. But a seriously problematic factor is widespread revisionism -- the relatively new "moderate orthodoxy" which seeks to downplay the more hideous elements of the Old Order, and which shies from anything it deems "too radical" and "too militant" both in historical and contemporary-challenge frameworks.
John Salter (the author of this piece), Joan Trumpauer, and Anne Moody sit in at the downtown Woolworth’s in Jackson, Mississippi on May 28, 1963.
A related problem is the obvious effort to canonize murdered Medgar, something I much think he'd reject. It's an elevation that, as so often with many humans, goes beyond the fine realities of the man and essentially ignores the signal contributions of a vast throng of courageous grassroots people who risked much by their roles in the Jackson Movement. Most media in Mississippi echo and reflect the foregoing "moderation" positions.
Much has changed for the better in the Old South and certainly in Mississippi: the development of the very right to organize and dissent and vote, widespread desegregation, and a substantial reduction in terror. But the economic royalists still ride high, poverty remains rampant, relative powerlessness still characterizes much of the grassroots regardless of race, racism is far from gone. Yet there are solidly activist things going on in the Magnolia state: civil rights, labor organizing, independent politics, and other creative thrusts.
Not long after Medgar's murder, the radical Southern poet John Beecher did a poem dedicated to me, commemorating the Jackson Movement, the Southern struggle, and the martyrdom of Medgar. The conclusion of "One More River to Cross" looked ahead to the great and never-ending thrust of the grassroots:
Who knows that some unpainted shack/
in the Delta/
may house one destined to lead us the/
next great step of the way . . .
Well, those people have arisen and continue to arise in the traditions of the great warriors who've gone before, those in the mold of Geronimo, Medgar Evers -- they organize, they fight, and they always will.
And we will win.
John R. Salter, Jr. (Hunter Gray) is a long-time activist, social justice community organizer, and radical university professor who now lives in the mountains of Eastern Idaho. His book, Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, has recently been published in expanded/updated form by the University of Nebraska Press.