Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans – Medgar Evers

Aug 17, 2015 by

Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans- Medgar Evers

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder- you have commented extensively on Martin Luther King and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. A secondary individual who may have “laid the groundwork” for the Civil Rights movement was Medgar Evers. What do we know about his early childhood and formative years?

Medgar Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi on July 2, 1925. Compared to most African-Americans in Mississippi at the time, the Evers family was relatively well off, as James Evers owned a farm. This allowed the family the luxury of having Medgar attend school rather than having to have him drop out to go to work. While Evers was attending high school, the United States entered the Second World War.

In 1943, he was drafted, and was inducted into the US Army. As was the case with many African-Americans during the Second World War, Evers was assigned to the Quarter Master Corps. His unit was sent to France in the days after the D-Day landings, and they joined the Allied offensive that succeeded in winning the war in Europe. During his years in the Army, Evers rose to the rank of sergeant. Discharged from the Army in 1946, Evers returned to Mississippi. In 1948, he enrolled at what is now known as Alcorn State University.

He took full advantage of his time at Alcorn, playing football, singing in the choir, and participating in debate. Receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952, Evers moved to Mound Bayou, Mississippi and became an insurance salesman. It was while living there that Evers embarked on the course of action that would lead him to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement.

  1. His early forays into civil rights and politics- what is in the historical record and what insights do you have in this regard?

The insurance company that Evers went to work for was owned by a man named T.R.M. Howard, and this individual was active in the Civil Rights movement. At the time Evers was hired, Howard was serving as the president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), and Evers soon became involved in a cause that the RCNL was working on. Many service stations in the South refused to allow African-Americans to use their restrooms while getting gas, and the RCNL hoped to end this discrimination. To achieve this goal, Evers helped to organize a boycott of the stations that engaged in this practice. From that moment on, Evers devoted his life to the cause of Civil Rights.

  1. Much of his work focused on the NAACP and The University of Mississippi. Can you compare and contrast his efforts in these two realms?

After his start with the cause of ending discrimination at gas stations, Evers next turned his attention to the University of Mississippi. In February of 1954, Evers applied for admission into that university’s law school. When he was denied (as he knew he would), Evers filed a suit against the university. This suit was unsuccessful, but ironically the point became moot later that year with the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The efforts by Evers to desegregate the law school at the University of Mississippi brought him to the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Impressed with what they had seen, the NAACP asked Evers to become their first field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He would serve in this capacity until his death.

  1. Sadly, his life was also cut short and we lost a very insightful leader- what do we know about his assassination?

Throughout the 1950s, Evers had become increasingly unpopular with many whites in Mississippi because of his activism. For example, Evers had angered many whites when he called for an investigation of the killing of Emmett Till, and he had upset others by his involvement in the successful effort in 1962 to integrate the University of Mississippi. This resulted in a number of efforts to take his life.

The first two—a firebombing of his house and a hit and run attempt—were unsuccessful. But on June 12, 1963, the day that President Kennedy had given a nationally televised speech on the subject of Civil Rights, Medgar Evers was shot and killed in front of his house.

  1. My understanding is that he, as a veteran, was buried with full military honors. What do you see as his greatest contribution and how does his work live on today?

After he was assassinated, the family of Medgar Evers requested that he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His burial took place on June 19, 1963. An estimated 3,000 mourners attended the ceremony. His grave lies in Section 36 of the cemetery, and is visited frequently.

  1. His life and the life of John F. Kennedy seem to be interlinked. What coincidences are found in the lives of these two individuals?

John Kennedy and Medgar Evers did indeed have a number of things in common. They both served in the military during the Second World War, for example, and both were struck down by assassinations. At the end of their lives, they also shared a belief that the cause of Civil Rights had to move forward. Evers obviously was committed to that ideal for a longer period of time than Kennedy, but the only thing that really matters is that in the end both men were devoting their lives to a cause that clearly deserved to be a national priority.

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