By Lee A. Daniels
Fifty years ago this month, two of the chief characteristics of the modern Civil Rights Movement were dramatically, tragically illuminated in Jackson, Miss. by an assassin’s bullet.
The first was that Black Americans’ nonviolent quest for full citizenship was going to be marked by a violent resistance and the sacrifice of martyrs. The second was that that reality would stop neither the Movement’s frontline activists nor the Black masses from pressing forward.
For it was in Jackson, on the night of June 11, 1963, that a bullet, fired from a 30.06-caliber rifle with a telescopic sight, struck down Medgar Evers, the young, charismatic field secretary of the Mississippi state N.A.A.C.P. as he exited his automobile in the driveway of his home.
Evers’ murder, when it occurred and in hindsight, bore witness to the fact that the Black freedom struggle had risen in explosive fashion to the top of the nation’s agenda. It occurred just weeks after the violent response of city officials in Birmingham, Ala. to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-led demonstrations there – the police beatings of nonviolent marchers; firemen turning their high-pressure hoses on defenseless men, women and children; police dogs shredding the clothing of stoic demonstrators – had stirred outrage and a groundswell of support for the Movement around the globe and, even more importantly, among a critical minority of White northerners.
The Birmingham protest itself provoked an eruption of more than 750 demonstrations of one kind or another against segregation across the country, historian Taylor Branch noted in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954 – 1963. In Jackson itself, city officials had seemingly out-maneuvered the civil rights forces. But at a mass meeting on the night of June 11, Evers, a World War II veteran who had fearlessly confronted racism in the state all his life, electrified the audience by calling for a renewed “massive offensive” against segregation in the city. The gathering applauded for 20 minutes.
Evers’ murder also occurred on the night of the very day that the federal government had forced Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace to stage his infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” and then retreat as Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first Black students to successfully enroll in the University of Alabama since Autherine Lucy’s mob-inspired withdrawal in 1956 .
That success had spurred President Kennedy to instantly decide to alert the national television and radio networks that he was commanding air time that evening to deliver a major address to the nation on civil rights. In it, JFK dropped his hitherto politically expedient distance from the Movement and fully embraced its cause, announcing what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Evers’ wife, Myrlie, and their three young children, had watched the president’s speech that evening and were eagerly awaiting Medgar’s return to discuss it with him.
A few days earlier, King, worried about the slow pace of change the Movement was seemingly mired in and JFK’s standoffishness, had broached to his aides the idea of a national “event” in Washington to pressure the president and the Congress to act.
Of course, that event – the March on Washington – became for many in the U.S. and around the world the signal moment of what Taylor Branch called “the King Years.” For many that halcyon gathering marks 1963 as the Movement’s watershed year and indicates there was then a smooth path to the landmark legislative victories: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But, just two weeks after the March came the Sunday morning bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls; and two months after that would come the assassination of President Kennedy – two events which for many within the Movement reaffirmed that tragedy would continue to shadow the civil rights trail.
In mid-June, 1963, Byron De La Beckwith, a virulent White supremacist with deep roots in Mississippi, was arrested and charged with Evers’ murder. The evidence against him was overwhelming. But, it being the Mississippi of the early 1960s, he escaped justice when his two trials in 1963 and 1964 ended in hung juries. Those legal conclusions, however, meant that he could be charged again should further evidence be discovered.
It was: an informant who testified that Beckwith had bragged over the years about the murder. In 1994 Beckwith was tried and convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2001 at the age of 80.
In its September, 1963 special issue, marking the centennial of President Lincoln’s announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, Ebony magazine reprinted a profile of Evers it had first published in 1958. In it, he said, “[T]his is home … Mississippi is part of the United States. And … I don’t plan to live here as a parasite. The things I don’t like, I will try to change. And in the long run, I hope to make a positive contribution to the productivity of the South.”
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.