Saunders: 50 years ago, a death in Mississippi and a defining story of the Civil Rights Movement

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 12, 2013 

Fifty years ago Wednesday, a giant of a man was felled in the carport of his Mississippi home by an assassin’s bullet, and the only people who heard the shot that cut him down were his wife and three young children.

That night.

But the day after his death, the whole world knew about the shot that killed Medgar Evers, the first field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, as he returned home after a day of leading efforts to get the city to hire some black cops. For that, he was murdered by a vile human being lying 200 feet away in a honeysuckle thicket. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted, 31 years later, of the murder.

Claude Sitton, the chief Southern correspondent for The New York Times – covering what was called “the race beat” – wrote the story of Evers’ death that was carried in newspapers around the world. Sitton later served as editor of The News & Observer.

As a reporter, he was renowned for not intruding upon the story, for letting it speak for itself.

Fifty years later, a retired eminence grise of journalism whose name is still spoken with reverence – he’ll probably cuss me out for saying that – he still prefers it that way.

When I called Sitton at his Georgia home recently to ask what he remembers about that story, about that time, he said, “You’ve got the story. Read it. I was in Birmingham when he was shot. I chartered a plane and flew to Jackson.”

End of story?

Not exactly. Once Sitton arrived, he wrote what could be the definitive story of the Civil Rights Movement, possibly even more so than those detailing the assassination five years later of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sitton described the murder of Evers, a World War II Army veteran, a patriot in every sense of the word, who was shot as he walked toward his front door, on the other side of which waited his adoring young family. It was a national tragedy, but it was also a personal one.

“He parked his 1962 light blue station wagon in the driveway, behind his wife’s station wagon. As he turned to walk into a side entrance opening into a carport, the sniper’s bullet struck him just below the right shoulder blade.

“The slug crashed through a front window of the home, penetrated an interior wall ... and struck a coffee pot. The battered bullet was found beneath a watermelon on a kitchen cabinet.”

Before finishing our call, Sitton, now 87, allowed himself one personal reflection. “Medgar was a wonderful person,” he said.

N.C. observance

North Carolina’s NAACP is holding a service to honor that wonderful person’s contributions to America at Davie Street Presbyterian Church at 11 a.m. Wednesday. People will then go over to the General Assembly for a program.

Rob Stephens, who holds the same type of position with the North Carolina NAACP that Evers held in Jackson, said he thinks North Carolina is the center of the struggle to hold onto the gains, especially in voting rights, won 50 years ago.

What influenced Stephens, 26 and about to go to seminary, to join the organization and become an officer? “Well, gosh, I think I’m the luckiest young activist in the country,” he said. “There’s nothing happening in the whole country like what’s happening (in North Carolina). Everybody’s watching what’s happening here, jealous of the kind of leadership we have, the type of movement we have with blacks and whites working together in the South ... and a moral center to it.”

Could you, I asked Stephens, have done what Evers did when he did it, where he did it?

“That’s difficult to say. I mean, it definitely was a different era,” he said. “We’re not having bullets fired at us as of now. We often forget how not-so-long-ago that was. Even what we did Monday, with Moral Monday – blacks and whites working together or in the same room – that was illegal 50 years ago” in some places.

Stephens said NAACP leaders still receive death threats. “I think that’s public knowledge,” he said. Fortunately for them, though, the threat of death doesn’t stalk them like a hungry tiger stalking an infant wildebeest, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

Remembering Evers

Although Evers is widely hailed today – with, among other honorifics, a college named after him – his assassination is not viewed as being as seminal a civil rights event as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that occurred later in 1963. When an editor asked me last week, “Do you know what happened 50 years ago on June 12?” I’m ashamed to say that it took me half a minute to remember Evers’ death.

At least I remembered it. A lot of important things occurred 50 years ago, 1963 being such a red letter year, and there are many lists of the events that continue to shape us even today. I swear, one history website I visited cited among its most memorable 1963 occurrences Stevie Wonder releasing “Fingertips Pt. 2” – a great song, indeed – and Bruno Sammartino beating Buddy Rogers Jr. for the rasslin’ championship.

Evers’ death didn’t make the cut. Fortunately for all of us, The New York Times considered it important enough to charter a plane so its reporter could get the story.

Sitton had to charter a flight to Jackson because he was in Birmingham covering Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s futile, provocative attempt to block black students from entering the state’s university. Sitton, it could be said and has been said, wrote the stories of the Civil Rights Movement.

Another N&O alum, former reporter Gene Roberts, wrote the Pultizer Prize-winning book.

OK, he co-wrote it. In “The Race Beat,” Hank Klibanoff and Roberts wrote about the role the press played in covering the movement and in awakening the nation to the horrors their fellow Americans of a darker hue were experiencing in the South. It was an essential role, and Sitton, as much as any other reporter, emerges as the book’s hero.

Say it’s 1963, and you live in Chicago or New York or San Francisco with no firsthand knowledge or even interest in what is happening below the Mason-Dixon Line. When you read a newspaper story about a man shot in the back, keys in hands – his three young children allowed just this once to stay up late to greet him but instead jolted by the sound of the bullet that killed him and screaming “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” as they rushed to the door – how can you not be moved, how can you not care? or 919-836-2811

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