Journeys in the Deep South IV: The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers
The Fact of Being Black: History, Culture, Politics VII
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure. One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968. His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States. The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity. Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.
Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware. Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression. Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College. As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black man in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state. In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and then at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.
The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work. His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice. As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books: he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement. The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.
Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi. Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination. In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense. White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s. On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.” The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port. He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.
The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.
The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.
The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.
Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies. Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him. In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote. Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted. To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant: he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.
Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope. I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike. Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel: when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck. A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.
Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause: they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats. Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. Neither reached the ripe old age of 40. There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established. The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled. But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects. And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.
The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement. Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore? Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing. Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.
[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.
King “as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.”
Howard Thurman, then, was probably the composer of the movement, the self-effacing leader who laid down the movement’s intellectual and moral foundations. Thurman is like Evers almost forgotten.
I quite agree that Howard Thurman was a major precursor of the Civil Rights movement and a prominent intellectual; and, as you say, he too is a largely forgotten
figure. He led the delegation of African Americans to India that met with Gandhi in 1936; portions of their conversation, or rather what Gandhi said, are recounted in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. There is an extraordinary passage where Gandhi hazards the speculation that the next great initiative in nonviolent resistance will come from black people in the US. I don’t know that I would call Thurman the “composer”, even if he left a deep impression on King.