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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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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Politics, Culture I (A New Series)

Los Angeles, 4 April 2017

A masterful orator, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – as he is invariably described in the black community – was perhaps at his prophetic best when, fifty years ago on this day, he handed down a searing indictment of America’s war in and on Vietnam at the Riverside Church in New York.  Four years earlier, on the steps of Washington’s Mall, King had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech; and it is doubtless the optimism of that speech, and its palpable demonstration of his still enduring faith, despite the massive provocations to which he had been subjected by white racists, in the promise of America that has ensured its status both as a landmark document of political spirituality and as a signal achievement in American political rhetoric.

The “dream” of which Dr. King spoke in 1963 would soon sour.  By the mid-1960s, America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam had considerably escalated.  Opposition to the war had been growing; even some who opposed the advance of communism in Vietnam had qualms about the manner in which the US had taken over the role of the former colonial power, France.  Thus far Dr. King had spoken comparatively little against the war, though his unflinching advocacy of nonviolent resistance to segregation and the virulent racism of American society did not leave in doubt his own views about the illegitimacy of war in general and, certainly, the absolute immorality of a war launched upon a people thousands of miles away who, as Ho Chi Minh had declared, “have never done any harm to the United States” and would not capitulate, or even agree to so-called peace talks, “under the threat of bombs”.

By 1966-67, the Vietnam War had become the defining, one might say transcendent, issue in American public life.  Some in the movement may have been tempted into thinking that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, the legal framework for redressing the extreme liabilities from which black people suffered had been put into place and thus the problems of African Americans were on their way to being resolved.  Dr. King and his associates, and black people throughout the US, of course knew better.  By this time, Dr. King had come around to the view that the two great movements of the mid-sixties, the Civil Rights agitation and the resistance to the war, had to be linked together.  There was another pressing consideration: in war abroad, as at home in the US, to the extent that the black person could call a country where he or she had been enslaved, killed, tortured, maimed, lynched, raped and ridiculed a “home”, the black person had borne the brunt of the toll.  A disproportionate number of young black men had been drafted to fight an imperialist war and lay down their lives for a country which otherwise had no use for them.

It is against this backdrop that on 4 April 1967 Dr. King stepped foot inside that “magnificent house of worship” called Riverside Church to deliver what remains to this day one of the most extraordinary indictments not just of the American war machine but of American society.  The particular risk that Dr. King took that day is hard to divine today, fifty years later, when it is assumed that opposition to the war was rather common; in any case, Dr. King’s singular achievement may not be transparent to those who have hear of Muhammad Ali’s fearless resistance or have grown up on the idea that Malcolm had by far a sharper and livelier tongue.  Dr. King’s many biographers have noted that he had been advised that he should not address the question of the Vietnam War:  the good faith that he had earned among many white people might well be squandered, and even his fellow black leaders were rather adamant that, as a “civil rights” leader, Dr. King should continue only to hammer away at the injustices facing black people.  Dr. King’s own father was among those who would help to weaken a resolution that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had put forward in opposition to the war.  Yet, as Dr. King told his audience, the time had come to recognize that, in relation to Vietnam, silence is betrayal.  Speaking from the “the burnings” of his own heart, he perforce had to question the path which was leading to the destruction of Vietnam, even if many questioned him about the “wisdom” of his intervention:  “At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud:  ‘Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?  Why are you joining the voices of dissent?’  ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say.  ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?’ they ask.”

What would follow that evening would be a meticulous and mesmerizing dissection of the structural roots of American racism and the inextricable link between militarism and injustice.  Dr. King himself would outline “seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the fold of [his] moral vision”, but his oration can be distilled into a few major points.  First, Dr. King ponders over the cruel irony of young black men “crippled by our society” being sent “eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asian which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”.  In “brutal solidarity”, Dr. King writes of young black and white American soldiers, they burned “the huts of a poor village” or mowed down the enemy, “but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.”  Secondly, Dr. King describes, not so much in chilling detail as in lacerating language, the destruction wrought in Vietnam by air and on land.  The “women and children and the aged” are sent on the move by bombs, herded off “into concentration camps”:  “They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.  They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. . . .  They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.  They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. . . We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops.”

A country that oppresses sections of its own people at home cannot be expected to do otherwise abroad.  Every colonial regime brutalized some of its own people, the weaker and defenseless sectors of its own society, before it brutalized external others.  One fundamental contribution of Dr. King’s Riverside Church oration was to bring home to the American people the inextricable relationship of American militarism in Vietnam and the desperate attempts by white racists to enforce racial segregation and discrimination in the US.  The country that denied black people the dignity that permits a person to call himself or herself free was the same country that would seek to virtually obliterate the Vietnamese.  Thus it is that Dr. King would go on to characterize his own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”.   Yet he does not permit this damning indictment to eviscerate his hope that America might one day be brought around to a different view of the world, such that it is no longer, as he says, “on the wrong side of a world revolution.”  But “if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution,” Dr. King insists, “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

It is a matter of record that Dr. King would be roundly criticized by nearly every major newspaper and periodical in the country.  One of the few magazines that stood by him was, not surprisingly, the NationThe Washington Post, which had been supportive of the war, stated with unvarnished arrogance that “many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence”; moreover, Dr. King had “diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country, and to his people.”  The supposed bastion of ‘true news’ and liberal opinion, the New York Times, which had been critical of the war, spoke in a rather identical idiom when it lamented that Dr. King had engaged in a “wasteful and self-defeating” exercise that had needlessly sought to fuse “two public problems that are distinct and separate” and thereby paved the way for an outcome that “could very well be disastrous for both causes.”  It is not, however, the supreme irrelevance of the observations of these two highly regarded newspapers that should be of most concern to us; rather, it is the indubitable fact that Dr. King’s speech might well be delivered today with barely any change, except for the alteration of some bare facts of life, that should give us to pause to consider whether we have even to the slightest degree rendered obsolete the moral concerns which framed Dr. King’s majestic set of reflections.

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