Fifty Years: Remembering Medgar Evers
The following article by John R. Salter, Jr. first appeared in Against the Current, issue #165. 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, is published by the University of Nebraska Press (2011). The Journal of Southern History called Salter’s book an “Essential reading. . . . A valuable account of events and insight into the internal dynamics of the [civil rights] movement.”
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
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
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
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.