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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 III:  The Longevity of Segregation

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

This week marks the 60th anniversary of what became known as the most intense crisis over integration in the country’s history.  Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, looks unlike any other school in the United States.  Its website features the Principal welcoming visitors to “America’s Most Beautiful High School.”  Beautiful is not quite the word for this hulk of a fortress; ‘imposing’ is far more apt.

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Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The present structure dates to 1927, though in its first incarnation the school dates to 1869; many mergers later, it became the Little Rock Central High School.  It is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service as the site has been declared of national importance.  Earlier this month, when my daughter and I visited the school, which is fully functional with an enrollment of around 2500 students and therefore cannot be visited without an escort, the Park ranger who served as our guide mentioned that it was built at a cost of $1.5 million, then perhaps the most expensive public high school in the country. We were also told that the city and the NPS have made a bid for Central High to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation supposedly reserved for natural, architectural, cultural, or spiritual sites of incalculable richness.

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Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which held the separation of public schooling for whites and blacks to be unconstitutional, effectively pronouncing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ a guaranteed recipe for social inequality, Central High School in Little Rock would become the ground for testing the country’s resolve to move towards desegregation.  In Arkansas, the Little Rock School Board put forth a plan whereby the integration of schools would begin at the elementary level, and then incrementally proceed over the course of a few years to encompass middle and high schools.  The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit in 1956 on behalf of 33 black students who had sought admission in a number of white schools.  Not only was progress slow, even though court rulings had urged schools to proceed “with all deliberate speed” to implement integration, but the innocuously named Citizens’ Councils, which were nothing but associations of white supremacists determined to keep schools and other nurseries of their race havens of lily-white purity, were also adopting both constitutional and extra-constitutional measures, that is to say intimidation and violence, to keep segregation intact.

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A plaque at the Visitors Center, Little Rock National Historic Site.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

In Little Rock, some black families with school-going children determined, with the active assistance of the NAACP, to have their children admitted to Central High. Nearly 150 black students were identified as, in principle, candidates for admission; over the next few months, this number continued to dwindle:  some families, intimidated by white hostility, had moved out of Little Rock, while others felt their resolve weaken.  The school was informed, shortly before the beginning of the new term in September 1957, that a small number of black children intended to enroll at Central High.  White segregationists made it known in no uncertain terms that they were equally determined to prevent their citadel of learning from being defiled.  Both sides appealed to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who, by the standards of the Deep South, appeared to be only moderately conservative, in other words someone who could be counted upon to least give black people a hearing. The segregationists warned that the forcible integration of the school would lead to violence; the desegregationists, insisting upon their constitutional rights, urged adherence to the rule of law.  Faubus in turn sought the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a veteran of more than one battle who surely, in his days as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and Governor of the American Zone of Occupied Germany, never anticipated that he would be sorely tested by a high school in what was little more than a town in the American backwaters.

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A painting by George Hunt of the Little Rock Nine, now at the Visitors Center:  according to the plaque, they are “flanked by a soldier on the left, who symbolizes the defense of every citizen’s rights, and an adult supporter on the right, representing leadership.”  The painting was commissioned on the 40th anniversary of the events at Central High; it hung in the Clinton White House and in 2005 was featured on a postage stamp.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which in September 1957 had 1900 white students, has been told in countless number of books and documentaries and need not be enumerated at any length here.  Nine black students sought to enter school on the first day of term on September 4th:  when they made their way to school they felt emboldened by the presence of the Arkansas National Guard.  Eisenhower, however, had been outsmarted by Faubus, the very model of pusillanimity:  as the students found out, the Guard had been sent to strengthen the hand of white racists, not the young black students who were jeered, taunted, and abused by a large crowd of white students egged on by their parents and other ‘responsible citizens’.  By dint of circumstances, fifteen-year old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, found herself alone, hounded by a mob—one instance where the use of this word is justified, a headless beast baying for blood.  She walked back to the bus stop—here, as all so often in the story of the Civil Rights movement, the semiotics of the bus stop—from where she took a bus to safety.  On orders of a Federal Judge, the Arkansas Guard was some days later ordered removed from the school:  thus, on September 23rd, a second attempt was made by the nine students to enter the school.  They walked, with determination; they were met with abuse, vulgarity, spittle.  They prevailed, or seemed to:  by lunch-time, the mob of 1000 white people outside the school appeared to be out of control, and the children were escorted out of school under armed guard.  At this juncture, Eisenhower sent units of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized, by Executive Order 10730, the Arkansas National Guard.  Finally, on September 25th, the Little Rock Nine, escorted by soldiers, entered the school premises and lasted the day.  On television, some days later, Governor Faubus described Little Rock as “occupied territory”!

Black Students Integrate Little Rock's Central High School

Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, a hostile crowed behind her:  the (in)famous photograph that was splashed across newspapers in the US and around the world.  Source:  The Heroine Collective; see:  http://www.theheroinecollective.com/elizabeth-eckford/

The story of Little Rock’s integration crisis is narrated with care and sensitivity at the National Park Service Visitor Center outside the school.  The vast majority of visitors will surely view the Visitor Center with its exhibits as an inspiring educational experience and as acknowledgment, howsoever belated, of the evils of racism.  They will be relieved by the presumption that African Americans have finally been given their due and that white people, in turn, have tamed some of their nastier instincts and curtailed their drive towards racism.  Such exhibits are certainly reassuring to citizens who have been bred on a number of ideas, among them the notion that, at least in the United States, the good eventually prevails, and that the story of humankind is fundamentally an uplifting narrative of the triumph of progress—albeit in fits and starts. The United States has, of course, become remarkably good at such demonstrations of repentance, and this kind of museum complex must be seen as complementing what I have described in numerous writings of mine as a culture of ‘apologies’.  All such narratives thrive on the idea of heroes (and increasingly heroines), and the growing trend now is to find such heroic figures from among the ranks of common people. There is something particularly uplifting, we are being told, about the fact that a common person—in the case of Central High School, school-age children being subjected to violent intimidation—can rise to the ranks of the martyred, a reminder as well of the similar potential within each person. Thus the near canonization of the Little Rock Nine. No one engaged in such exercises has been much exercised by Brecht’s observation, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

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The scene outside Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, after school was over:  12 September 2017.  Photo:  Vinay Lal.

The crisis of Little Rock, remarkably, persists—not at Little Rock as such, which on the day of my visit seemed a bit of an oasis, as a visibly diverse body of students sauntered in the mid-afternoon after school was let out towards the long line of school buses, but rather in the nation at large. In a country of ‘experts’, there are many who continue to study the patterns of segregation which dominate American public school education.  Some have argued that segregation is, if anything, a more intense problem today than it was in the day of Jim Crow:  back then, one knew the problem for what it was, nor were black children steeped in the ideology of whiteness.  Even many of those, and they must surely be the majority, who are not inclined to at all accept such a reading are nevertheless prepared to accept the softer version of the verdict that American public schooling is, with respect to the question of segregation alone, in deep distress.  The Civil Rights Project at UCLA has documented long-term reversals of gains made during the Civil Rights era, and its recent report on growing segregation in the South has this to say: “Building on the gains of the Civil Rights era, from 1968 to 1980, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools (schools where 90 percent or more are students of color) fell from almost 80 percent to a low of about 23 percent. But since then, the percentage of Black students in intensely segregated schools has risen to more than one in three (35.8%).”  A recent article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, which often furnishes insights into contemporary American society that are unavailable in American newspapers, states baldly that “US schools are, on balance, more segregated today than they were 45 years ago.”  The article documents two schools in the Jackson school district in Mississippi:  Raines is 99% black, and only 4% of its students are proficient in math and 11% in English; a few blocks away, Madison Elementary is 70% white, and over 70% of its students are proficient in both English and math.

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This monument to the Little Rock Nine stands in the State Capitol Building gardens.  Sculptors:  Deering, Scallion and Deering Studio.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The battle that was fought at Little Rock was never just over integration:  the question of the rights of states and the prerogatives of the Federal government was paramount, as it is today in nearly all the disputes that have rankled the nation, whether they be over statues of confederate soldiers or Obamacare.  I shall turn to these questions in later essays:  however, to the extent that segregation became the visible platform over which the lines of battle were drawn, it is indisputably clear that the fortress of segregation has yet to be breached.

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