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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.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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 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 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.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

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.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

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.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

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.

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Journeys in the Deep South II:  The Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics V

Paul Robeson was quite possibly nay certainly the most talented person in 20th Century America and a gigantic figure on the world stage.  This will strike many people as an absurd claim:  Robeson is now a largely forgotten figure, even if known in passing to many among those with more than a modicum of knowledge about American arts, letters, and politics.  Some will object that he is commemorated with an American postage stamp, a sure sign of his recognition and even admission into the ranks of the establishment.  At this juncture, I will not speak at length of the politics of postage stamps; suffice to say that the postage stamp is practically obsolete.  The philatelist is now akin to a troglodyte, a remnant of a different age; certainly, judging from the example of my own children, the postage stamp is barely even an object of curiosity.  Few American children of the present generation have ever mailed a letter:  a subject for another set of reflections.  So, all this is by way of suggesting that a postage stamp no longer redeems an individual or puts him or her on a pedestal, and one can barely conclude from Robinson’s deification on a postage stamp that America recognizes him for the supreme genius that he was.

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Robeson first acquired a reputation as American college football’s greatest star, though as a black person even this recognition was very late in coming; he also went on to earn varsity letters in track, basketball, and football.  It is doubtful that there was ever a more accomplished college athlete than Robeson.  But should one think that he had merely set the example for the professional black athlete, and paved the way for a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Michael Jordan, it is well to recall that he graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as the class valedictorian.  He then went on to build a reputation as an international opera star, singer, and movie and theater actor; he was the first black man to play the role of Othello, first in London and then, during World War II, on Broadway, in which role he had a longer run than any other actor, white or black:  300 performances.  By the 1920s, Robeson, born in April 1898, had earned a law degree from Columbia University; he was, moreover, already a committed political activist, and in the late 1930s he became part of the international brigade of volunteers determined to confront the rise of fascism in Spain.

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Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4).  Source:  Wiki Commons.

It is also in the 1930s that Robeson turned towards Africa, in an attempt to understood his own roots and heritage; at home, in the United States, this had already led him to become a forceful voice against lynching and a ferocious advocate of the rights of the working class, white as much as black.  In 1934, by which time Robeson had made London his home, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is said to have studied a score of African dialects.  To his many other gifts, which make words such as ‘extraordinary’ appear positively pedestrian, we can add his flair for languages.  The National Archive webpage on Robeson mentions, quite casually, that he sang in more than 25 languages, a claim substantiated by the archival record and many of his biographers; the short biography of him that appears on the PBS website states “that he spoke fifteen languages”. In his late 50s, Robeson turned to the study of Arabic and Hebrew.  The phrase ‘Renaissance Man’, clichéd as it is, seems wholly inadequate to describe a person of his oceanic accomplishments.

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Peggy Ashcroft and, as Othello, Paul Robeson, 1930.

In 1939, on the eve of the war, Robeson returned to the United States where he was at once established as the country’s “Number One” entertainer.  But Robeson’s political awakening had also taken him to the Soviet Union.  His son has described his father’s intellectual journey aptly: “Freedom movements in the European colonies of Africa and Asia faced fierce repression, with many top leaders in prison or in exile.  The eloquent voices of Gandhi and Nehru in India, as well the compelling appeals of freedom movement leaders from the length and breadth of the African continent, were eliciting ever greater international support as the Soviet Union threw its considerable weight behind the anticolonialist cause” (Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 [New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 2001], 285).  Though Robeson’s support for the American war effort was unequivocal, his concert tour in the Soviet Union (1936-37), refusal to criticize Soviet policies, and outspoken defense of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war earned him the enmity of anti-communist crusaders.  He was among the most prominent people in the country to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee; his passport was revoked.  The exchange that transpired between him and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 12 June 1956 is a remarkable document, a timely and chilling reminder of the revival of brute strategies of compelling fealty to flag and country in our own times:

“Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. . . .  The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.”

“This United States Government”, Robeson told the court of inquisition, “should go down to Mississippi and protect my people.  That is what should happen.”  Why, as Robeson had asked more than once, would Negroes fight on behalf of a government that had ruthlessly put them down for 300 years against a nation [the Soviet Union] where racial discrimination was prohibited?  Let us listen to another portion of the exchange:

“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.

“Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?

“Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.”

As their exchange winds up, Robeson ends with a devastating indictment: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The damage, however, had been done; Robeson was a wounded, marked man.  In consequence of his public defilement, he found that he was shunned by artists, intellectuals, and former colleagues and fellow-travelers in ideas.  His income declined sharply and Robeson went into forced early retirement.  In the late 1950s, by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court, in the case of Kent v. Dulles, Robeson’s passport was returned to him.  He had a triumphant thunderous concert tour in the Soviet Union in 1959, but this ‘rehabilitation’ came too late as the ostracism had taken a physical and mental toll of his life.  For the remainder of his life, until his death in 1976, Robeson became largely a recluse.

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Paul Robeson, “Negro Songs”, a recording in Russian issued by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

This brings me, then, to the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now a majestic Civil Rights Museum.  I shall speak of it as a memorial site to King elsewhere.  For now, I have another nagging doubt.  Whatever the differences between the movement’s most well-known advocates, and whatever, for example, the strategic differences between major organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and others, the adherence to nonviolence remained common to the movement’s different constituent elements. Even Malcolm X is acknowledged, with respect.  How is it, then, that in this museum, where the struggle of African Americans to claim a rightful place for themselves in the history of America is documented with such sensitivity, the name of Paul Robeson is—as far as I can tell—entirely missing from the grand narrative which takes us from the Emancipation Proclamation to King’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain-top” speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)?  How is it that Paul Robeson, a colossus among giants, remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, unsung in this shrine to the struggle of black people—a shrine shaped by Robeson’s own people?  Is it the case that the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights movement, many of whom remained committed to a staunch anti-communism, were never reconciled to Robeson, perhaps seeing in him a well-meaning naïve human rights advocate who could not and would not recognize the unmitigated evils of Stalinist Russia?

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Editorial drawing of Paul Robeson by Charles Alston, 1943.  Source:  National Archives of the United States.  http://www.archives.gov/files/images/alston-drawing.jgp

Through the mid-1950s, after that is the murder of Emmett Till, the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the activism of Medgar Evers that would lead to his assassination, Robeson continued to be recognized, more particularly in the African American press, as a unique spokesperson for black people.  The Afro-American, published from Baltimore, was forthright in its headline reporting what had transpired at Robeson’s investigation by the House Committee: “Mr. Robeson is Right” (23 June 1956).  The Sun-Reporter of San Francisco, on the same day, affirmed his place in the American public sphere: “Robeson as far as most Negroes are concerned occupies a unique position in the U.S., or the world, for that matter.  Whites hate and fear him simply because he is the conscience of the U.S. in the field of color relations.”  The Charlottesville-Albermale Tribune on June 22 declared the House Committee’s persecution of Robeson a “fiasco” and ventured to give forth the opinion that denying Robeson the right to travel or sing “is more hurtful to American prestige abroad than any intemperate statement he ever made.”  Other black-owned newspapers, none that could be characterized as communist in their ideological predisposition, were similarly effusive in their praise of Robeson as the preeminent voice “for justice, happiness and freedom”, as the supreme embodiment of “the unrestrained and righteous rage that has broken bonds” (California Voice, Oakland, 22 June 1956).

What is thus clear is that Robeson remained not merely in the limelight in the mid-1950s but that he was generally recognized as the conscience of black America.  His evisceration from the public record is deplorable enough, but the fact that he should have been excised from the memory even of much of black America and from the narratives of the struggle for civil rights is something that is profoundly troubling.  In 1948, W. E. B. DuBois had been forced out of the NAACP, which considered DuBois’s sympathies for communism a liability; a decade later, the NAACP was itself marginalized as SCLC and the radicals of SNCC pushed for a more aggressive stance against segregation and racism.  The Civil Rights Movement might well be the only revolution that the United States has ever had; even here, though, the absence of Paul Robeson from the received narrative points to what the conventional language of Marxism would characterize as its essentially “bourgeois” characteristic.  Whatever else might be required to bring the still unredeemed promise of the Civil Rights movement to fruition, Paul Robeson will certainly have to be given his due, and more.

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