History Tidbit: Medgar Evers

In remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement

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Medgar Evers was a young man of the South who, after his military experience, took up the fight for racial equality and an end to the “Jim Crow” legacy that had been in place since the 1890s. He was born on July 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi and his family’s heritage extended back to at least the early 1800s in South Carolina and Mississippi. His father, James, was a farmer and his mother, Jessie, was a homemaker. By 1940 the family had expanded to include Medgar, his older brother, James C., and two younger sisters.

Medgar Evers was nearly finished with high school when he was drafted during World War II. His brother, James, enlisted in the Army two months after Pearl Harbor and Medgar followed him in October 1943. He went on to serve in Germany and France, surviving the D-Day invasion, and was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant in 1946. Like many African Americans who served in World War II, Medgar Evers’ military experience opened his eyes to how differently blacks were treated in Europe versus back home in the U.S., which led him and many others to become lifelong social activists.

After his military discharge, he completed his high school studies and graduated, then used the G.I. bill to attend Alcorn State College, graduating in 1952 with a degree in business administration. While pursuing an education, he became active in civil rights organizations. In February 1954, he applied for law school at the University of Mississippi, but it was segregated at the time, so his application was rejected. His rejection became a focal point for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to campaign for desegregating the university and gained momentum after May 17, 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education). Evers was never admitted to law school, but he was very involved in helping James Meredith become the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi in 1962.

Medger Evers was appointed as the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi and he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the mid-1950s. Dr. King invited him to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 and they both pursued the same goal through different organizations.

On June 12, 1963, five months before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Medgar W. Evers was gunned down at home in his driveway by Ku Klux Klan member, Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith was not convicted of the crime until 1994. The movie “Ghosts of Mississippi” tells the story of Beckwith’s trial.

Sgt. Medger Evers is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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Photos:

Top – 1950s photo of Medgar Evers at his desk, NAACP; AMCTV

Bottom – front: son, James Van Dyke Evers; left to right: James Meredith (first African American accepted to University of Mississippi), Medgar Evers, and James Baldwin; NPR, 1963

 

Story from the VA Historian, Washington DC 1/2015

 

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