Medgar Evers: Lost in a search for the American Dream

June 11, 2013 

Medgar Evers Anniversary

In this June 15, 1963 file photo, Mrs. Medgar Evers comforts her 9-year-old son, Darrel, at the funeral in Jackson, Miss. for slain integration leader Medgar Evers. Several events are being held to remember Evers, the first Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was 37 when he was assassinated outside the family’s north Jackson home on June 12, 1963.


He was a rugged boy – a farmer’s son who walked 12 miles through whatever nature threw at him to earn his high school diploma.

One of “the Greatest Generation,” he went off to war to protect our country. Came back a buck sergeant, honorably discharged, with a jingle in his pocket and a head full of plans.

He was a jock, a brain, and he could sing, too. Put himself through college and finished in four years – pausing, at Christmas break in his senior year, to marry the love of his life.

After graduation they moved into a house about 200 miles from his hometown.

He worked as an insurance salesman to house and feed his wife and their children, who eventually numbered three. He had the grades to get into law school but was turned away. Much of his time was spent reaching out to others in the same general predicament.

It was those extracurricular activities that got Medgar Wiley Evers murdered – back-shot because he wanted others to have the same opportunities he’d had and to feel the same elation he’d felt at having white Europeans take no notice of his color.

That was his offense: a conviction that the American Dream was for all Americans.

Among my most searing memories of the 1960s is a black-and-white photo of his driveway and a long trail of blood leading from where he’d parked his car to the steps. There were no people in the photo – just a home, indelibly lined off by Evers’ futile struggle to drag himself to the horrified family inside.

The line inscribed by Evers’ blood is important because it marks a point at which many people go astray and end up missing the point.

Evers’ murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, belonged to the White Citizens Council, which, like the KKK, was just another incarnation of the lynch-mob impulse. But here’s where you need to let go of something you might have long held as true: The Klan, even in its heyday, was never white supremacy’s great driving force. It was a bit player.

The culprit was the law.

The Klan didn’t make it all but impossible for 20th century blacks to vote in Mississippi or bar nonwhites from public universities. The law did that.

Medgar Evers gave his honorable service to the United States in an Army segregated by law, not by night-riding goons.

It wasn’t the Klan that stacked the deck against Evers’ parents, consigning them to discrimination and endless struggle against steep odds. It was the law.

A generation earlier, white lawmakers wrote “black codes” to keep blacks in their place – meaning anchored in perpetual servitude to whites.

Before all that, planters (often called “America’s royalty”) were the law on their plantations, and statutory law affirmed that arrangement. The law backed their authority to make almost all kinds of judgments, which could and often did involve hideous brutality heaped onto the aggressive brutality of enslavement itself.

In 1835 the N.C. General Assembly, not the KKK, decided that free blacks and Native Americans were becoming too numerous and should no longer be allowed to vote.

Slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, segregation – all of it was codified and dutifully enforced. Yet you want to know why “Help! Police!” doesn’t mean the same thing to blacks that it means to whites? Bull Connor was the law. Ross Barnett and Orval Faubus were the law.

It took Medgar Evers’ death, and the murders of others, including four children in a place of worship, to get the laws changed. And resentment of those changes still runs strong.

That’s why “Don’t worry; the law will handle it” is poor reassurance for many of your fellow Americans. For them the law has been, at best, an inconstant ally.

MCT Information Services

Gene Smith is the Fayetteville Observer’s senior editorial writer.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service