Black History Month: How I Learned About Medgar Evers

Black History Month: How I Learned About Medgar Evers

Sometime in the mid-1990s I went to see Ghosts of Mississippi at the theatre with a friend of mine. All I knew about it was that she wanted to see it and asked me, but I hadn't known what it was going to be about. Of course, if I had seen the movie today I would be outraged. I have a different lens on such things, historical films that try to tell the story of one person but end up making a hero out of another. I suppose that's a sort of progress in a way.

Almost as soon as the movie started, I leaned over and whispered to her, "Hey. I know this story. It's about Medgar Evers."

"Who? Who is that?" she asked.

I hate when people talk through an entire movie so I summed it up quickly for her and stopped talking so we could watch. After it was over she asked me how I knew who he was and it wasn't from some history class or watching a documentary or even reading a book. It was a story I heard from my step-mother.

I can't always recall the first time I've heard of someone from history, but Medgar Evers is one whose name is spoken and I remember the very moment. There was a bit of shame, on my part for not knowing who he was, but I simply hadn't been taught about him in my history classes in high school.

After my parents divorced, my father remarried a woman named Sharon who happened to know about Medgar Evers because he was her cousin. (I cannot recall now if he was a first or second cousin.) When I said I didn't know who he was, she schooled me. In a really good way. She brought out family photos and newspaper clippings and told me everything there was to know about him. In school we call those primary source documents. Never before and never since have I held such important pieces of history in my own hands.

Born in July of 1925, Medgar's life seemed to follow a traditional path of the military, college, marriage and family. He worked to overturn unfairness at the University of Mississippi to which he was denied admission into the law school. Not only did Evers work tirelessly as the field secretary for the NAACP, he also hired Thurgood Marshall as his lawyer to sue the University of Mississippi Law School in 1954.

As state field secretary, Evers traveled around Mississippi extensively. Feeling threatened by the important work of recruiting and organizing members of the NAACP especially in voter registration is what caught the attention of those who would seek to halt his work. Much of his work also revolved around the boycotting of white-owned establishments that practiced discrimination.

Medgar Evers was one of the most prominent civil rights activists in Mississippi. His work was focused in fighting racial injustices found in both state and local systems especially in the court system. For instance, Evers' work into the investigation of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who had allegedly been killed for talking to a white woman, had helped the battle of searching for the truth about Till's death even felt until the last decade.

Coming home one night Medgar was shot in his driveway by Byron de la Beckwith, a murderer who went free twice before finally being tried fairly. Medgar left behind a wife and two small children. After his death, his wife, Myrlie, took up his work and has spent the rest of her life ensuring that his work wouldn't go unnoticed. Myrlie Evers also became the first woman to lead the NAACP.

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