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Civil Rights Martyr Medgar Evers Gave His Life to End Jim Crow

Medgar Evers while serving in the Army during World War II. Credit: U.S. Army

“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea,” martyred civil rights leader Medgar Evers once said. 

Sixty years ago, on June 12, 1963, Evers was gunned down in his driveway at his home in Jackson, MS. A leader of the NAACP, Evers knew that his activism made him a target for white supremacists in his state. “I’m looking to die every time I step out of my car. If I die it will be [for] a good cause,” he said.

His grim prophecy came true 60 years ago when he was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle fired by white racist Byron De La Beckwith. When he died, Evers was carrying a bundle of T-shirts bearing the civil rights slogan, “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers gave his life in a struggle to end Jim Crow segregation in the bigoted social and legal structure of Mississippi. He did indeed perish “in a good cause.”

Evers was a veteran of World War II who had seen the horrors of war during the 1944 D-Day invasion by Allied forces that was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Reich in Nazi-occupied Europe. When Evers returned home from fighting fascism overseas, he found homegrown fascism in his own country in the form of laws and customs that repressed African American citizens here in a nation that claimed to fight for freedom. Evers and many other returning Black veterans had fought for freedom overseas while America denied freedom to millions of its own citizens because of their race. “Freedom has never been free,” said Evers as he joined the postwar struggle for racial justice in America.

Evers died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy gave a nationally televised speech calling civil rights “a moral issue… It is as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” In his monumental three-volume biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., historian Taylor Branch wrote, “Like Kennedy’s speech, the murder of Medgar Evers changed the language of race in American mass culture overnight. The killing was called an assassination rather than a lynching, Evers a martyr rather than a random victim.”

Evers was buried with full military honors in the sacred ground of Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. More than 2,000 people attended the funeral, including the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After the somber ceremony, Evers’ wife, children and brother were invited to the White House, where they received condolences from President Kennedy. Just five months after the murder of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy would himself die from an assassin’s bullet on Nov. 22, 1963. Five years later, on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy would be murdered as he sought the presidency. 

Both 1963 and 1968 were tempestuous years marked by assassinations and rage in the streets, but fear and hope mingled during both those years. In late summer of 1963, just weeks after the murder of Medgar Evers, Dr. King gave his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech at the massive March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. Less than three weeks after King’s optimistic oratory in Washington, four Black children were killed when a bomb planted by right-wing extremists exploded at a church in Birmingham, AL. That city was called “Bombingham” because of white supremacist bombings against African Americans in the city that climaxed with the 1963 church bombing. King eulogized the children in a moving tribute that voiced his hope that the event would “cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.” Dr. King also would become a civil rights martyr when he was murdered in Memphis in 1968.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law on what would have been Medgar Evers’ 39th birthday. His murderer, Byron De La Beckwith, escaped justice when all-white juries deadlocked on a verdict in 1964. Not until 1994 would he finally be sent to prison, where he died at age 80 in 2001. Medgar Evers has been dead for 60 years, but his ideas and ideals live on in America today.