The life of Medgar Evers is synonymous with the civil rights struggle and his strong leadership in the movement. This series, written by Dorian Randall, will explore his life, work, and legacy using related collections at MDAH.
In the 1960s Mississippi segregationists maintained a firm grip on social, political, and economic power. Evers intended to practice his rights as a U.S. citizen after being honorably discharged from the army by tackling the vote, which represented “the most tangible symbol of social and political equality.”1 In 1946 Evers, his brother Charles, and a group of friends decided to cast their ballot in the Democratic primary election where segregationist senator Theodore G. Bilbo sought re-election. Although they were allowed to register without incident, on election day a white mob prevented them from voting. This experience fueled Evers’ work in the NAACP as the organization worked to increase black voter registration. Other demonstrations against inequality followed as Evers grew into a civil rights leader.
Evers participated in, supported, and helped organize “direct action” demonstrations over the course of his NAACP career. From 1959 to 1960, Evers assisted his friend and NAACP member Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., who attempted to desegregate Biloxi’s beaches in a series of “wade-ins.” After notifying Evers of his intent, Dr. Mason and a group of swimmers made several trips to Biloxi’s public beaches in 1959. An April 1960 visit proved crucial to the desegregation effort as the swimmers were attacked by angered whites. Evers later recounted the incident in a series of reports to the NAACP national office in New York:
As a follow-up to the report of April 24, 1960, in regard to the Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, and Gulf Coast demonstrations, I’m happy to report that members of our Gulfport and Pass Christian Branches participated on Sunday, April 24, 1960, in a movement to desegregate the beaches on the Gulf Coast…The quick action of the members of the Gulfport Branch, under the leadership of Dr. Felix H. Dunn, and Dr. Gilbert R. Mason, prompted an immediate inquiry from the Federal Bureau of Investigation…Dr. Mason and other members of the Negro citizenry of Biloxi would like for the N.A.A.C.P. to act in their behalf as a friend to the court, in the suit to open the beaches to all.2
Desegregating beaches wasn’t Evers’ only concern.
He also believed in the power of the youth. The national NAACP leadership did not fully support direct action tactics, but the youth pressed for more demonstrations. Evers had earned the respect of black youth through his support of the Jackson Youth Council and Touglaoo Nine, the black students who integrated the whites-only Jackson Municipal Public Library in March of 1961. He provided the young activists “opportunities to play prominent roles in the overall struggle, and he sought their advice on important issues such as strategies and resistance measures.”3
This WLBT news clip depicts Evers investigating and negotiating the terms of release for black youth protesters held at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds in Jackson circa 1961. Call number: MP/1980.01, reel D18 LCN 872 (MDAH)
In 1963 Evers worked with Tougaloo College professor John Salter, whom he met at an NAACP dinner, to organize youth for a boycott of Capitol Street businesses.4 During the Woolworth’s sit-in on May 28, 1963, Evers contacted the national media and coordinated activities from his NAACP office. On June 1, he was even arrested for picketing in front of the Woolworth’s. Evers had risen as a strong leader and organizer who inspired youth such as Tom Beard to actively pursue their rights as natural born citizens.
Tom Beard was just eighteen years old when he participated in the Woolworth’s sit-in. He was inspired by Evers’ determination and looked to him as a father figure. For Beard, Evers was a man of action who was willing to say what he himself could not. Beard once stated that he “just appreciated him having the guts to start something at the time.”5
1 Michael Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 38.
2 Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, eds., The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005), 188-90.
3 Williams, Medgar Evers, 203.
4 M.J. O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 27.
5 O’Brien, We Shall Not Be Moved, 68.