USA TODAY 11 Hours Ago
by Jerry Mitchell
Medgar Evers, born July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Miss., was killed June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Miss., by a white supremacist.(Photo: Brown University)
Charles Evers became first black mayor of Fayette, Miss.
Myrlie Evers-Williams worked with NAACP, delivered Obama inaugural invocation
Death both led them deep into civil service
No matter where Charles Evers tromped, Medgar Evers trailed behind.
The preteen brothers explored the woods of Newton County, Miss., stepping past endless pines and hurdling creeks where the water ran muddy red.
Charles taught his brother, 3 years younger, how to hunt and fish. Better yet, he taught him how to punch.
MORE HISTORY: Civil Rights in America: Connections to a Movement
One day in 1934, the brothers crawled until they reached the front of the crowd at the courthouse in Decatur where the soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo was campaigning and spewing racial epithets.
“You see these two little n—–s down here?” he asked. “If y’all don’t stop them, one day these n—–s will be trying to represent you in Washington.”
Medgar turned and said, “Ain’t a bad idea, Charlie.”
During Depression days, a white mob dragged their father’s friend, Willie Tingle, through the streets, hung him from a tree and shot him. His supposed crime? Insulting a white woman.
The brothers asked their father why his friend had been killed. “Because he’s colored,” their father replied.
“Those days were almost unbearable, but somehow we withstood it,” Charles recalled. “There was so much racism, bigotry and ignorance.”
Medgar Evers and wife Myrlie are shown with their wedding party in 1951. The two met on the campus of what is now Alcorn State University.(Photo: NONE GANNETT)
Introducing Myrlie Evers
Myrlie Beasley hoped to become a concert pianist when she arrived at Alcorn A&M College, now known as Alcorn State University, in Lorman, Miss.
A man named Medgar Evers, however, interrupted her plans.
The freshman from the hills of Vicksburg, Miss., shifted her weight against a light pole when he walked up in his football uniform, still gleaming in sweat. “If you keep leaning against that pole, you might get shocked,” he warned.
The real shock came after a few weeks of dating when he told her he wanted her to have his children.
“There was something about the way he walked and the way he talked that said strength and determination, and I think most of us found that fascinating,” she recalled.
They married on Christmas Eve, 1951. They had three children — Darrell, Reena and Van.
In 1954, Medgar became field secretary of the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a position that instantly made him a target of the Ku Klux Klan.
Myrlie worried. She worked some as his secretary but mostly as a homemaker, sharing stories with her children. She feared that hate would snatch him away.
“It was something he never escaped and also something I could never escape,” she recalled. “When you have death staring you in the face all the time, you try to make the most of life.”
Charles Evers, large and in charge
By 1955, the push for voting rights cost Charles Evers his job at a Mississippi radio station, and he headed for Chicago. There he had several clubs, where he ran numbers for the mob and managed prostitutes, he said.
“I used to be a thug,” he recalled. “I’d do anything to make a dollar. I wanted to be rich, and I wanted Medgar to be rich. You couldn’t do it broke. Medgar was the good guy of the family.”
He mailed checks back to his brother to support the civil rights movement.
The two spoke by telephone, often warning each other about the danger they faced, Charles with the Mafia and Medgar with the Klan.
Charles marveled at Medgar. When white men called the NAACP office and screamed threats, he responded calmly — a response that often disarmed them. He knew he was hated, yet he didn’t hate back.
“He wanted Mississippians to be Americans,” Charles recalled. “And he wanted people to be treated fairly, regardless of color.”
Medgar Evers, field secretary for the NAACP, and his wife Myrlie, bought this Jackson, Miss. house in 1957 with a GI mortgage. The home was the site of his assassination on June 12, 1963.(Photo: Gannett)
On the night of June 11, 1963, Myrlie and her children watched President John Kennedy tell the nation that the grandsons of slaves were still not free.
Hours later, their 37-year-old father arrived home late from a civil rights meeting. They heard his car pull into the driveway of their Jackson, Miss., home and then they heard a loud bang.
The couple’s three children crawled to the bathtub — the place they believed was the safest and hid there.
Myrlie dashed to the door, saw blood and screamed.
Hours later in Chicago, Charles arrived home from his club and heard the news from his wife, Nan. “They shot Medgar tonight,” she said.
Charles figured his brother had just been injured.
“No, Charlie,” Nan said. “He’s dead.”
Charles loaded his suitcase with clothes, a rapid-firing carbine and two .38-caliber pistols. He took over his brother’s job as field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP.
No more fear
After her husband’s funeral, Myrlie watched thousands pour out onto the street in Jackson. They began chanting, “After Medgar, no more fear.”
Civil rights leaders asked her to speak at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington, and the program listed her as “Mrs. Medgar Evers.”
Unable to cancel a prior speaking engagement, she flew from Boston to Washington, D.C., but traffic kept her from making it to the Lincoln Memorial in time to speak.
Instead, her public appearance came months later as a witness in the murder trial for Byron De La Beckwith, who was accused of shooting Evers. But the jury reached no verdict.
After a second jury deadlocked in April 1964, Myrlie Evers knew her family needed a change. They headed for California.
Her children attended school, and so did she, enrolling at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. In 1968, she stepped across the stage and received her diploma, a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Charles Evers shares memories of his brother Medgar Evers.(Photo: Gannett)
A terrible thing
Charles Evers ran the Mississippi NAACP like he ran his businesses — his way or the highway.
National NAACP leadership began to despise Charles, who could have cared less. He decided the best strategy to get back at all of the racists would be to dedicate himself to the civil rights movement.
He rose to the national stage, becoming friends with both President Kennedy and Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.
When Bobby Kennedy hit the campaign trail for U.S. Senate in 1964, Charles joined him. “We got to be very close,” Charles said. “We became like two peas in a hull.”
Four years later, Bobby Kennedy ran for president. On June 4, 1968, Charles joined the candidate in campaigning across Los Angeles. “They loved him to death,” he recalled.
Kennedy won the California primary. After his victory speech, he took a short cut through the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen.
Charles heard a “pop, pop, pop” sound, rushed inside and saw Kennedy had been shot.
He choked up recalling the event. “It’s one of the most terrible things,” he said.
In five years, every one of his heroes — Medgar, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — had been assassinated. “Too quickly,” he said, “we forget those who do something for us.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers, right, and Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP national board of directors, carry a wreath to be placed in front of the former home of the slain civil rights leader on Thursday.(Photo: Rogelio V. Solis, AP)
More than a widow, more than a brother
In 1970, Myrlie ran for Congress in California on a shoestring budget, and lost.
Her campaign literature referred to her as “Myrlie Evers,” rather than “Mrs. Medgar Evers,” as she had in her 1967 memoir.
She wanted to do all she could to preserve Medgar’s memory, but she also wanted the world to know she was more than just “the widow of …”
In 1976, the unexpected happened when she married Walter Williams, a longshoreman and civil rights activist who had long admired Medgar Evers. “I loved Medgar before I loved Myrlie,” he said.
She welcomed the new life, working for Atlantic Richfield and promoting the rights of women, minorities and others who had been overlooked.
In 1969, Charles became mayor of Fayette, Miss. — the first African-American mayor of any biracial town in Mississippi since Reconstruction. The NAACP picked him as its “Man of the Year.”
Two years later, he ran for governor — an act he knew would have Bilbo rolling over in his grave. He lost the election to a man he admired, Bill Waller, who had prosecuted Beckwith.
After years of supporting Democratic candidates, he officially joined the Republican Party in 1989. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he said. “They left me.”
In October 1989, Myrlie learned for the first time that an arm of the state of Mississippi that was supposed to be prosecuting Beckwith had secretly assisted his defense, trying to get him acquitted in his 1964 trials.
News of the help of the state’s segregationist spy agency prompted her to ask for Medgar’s case to be prosecuted again.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is my last chance,'” she said.
Some questioned her efforts, she said. “I was ignored and thought of as a troublemaker by my own people. They said let it go. I could not let it go.”
In 1994, Beckwith went on trial.
Myrlie held hands with her children Darrell and Reena when the verdict was announced. After three decades, she heard the word she had longed to hear — guilty.
Something deep inside erupted inside of Myrlie. It felt like demons of hate were escaping every pore of her body, and she found words emerging from her mouth: “Yes, Medgar!”
She was finally free.
Myrlie Evers-Williams gives the invocation at Monday’s inaugural ceremony.(Photo: Porter Binks for USA TODAY)
Still the same
After 16 years in public office in Fayette, Charles spent more time managing his radio station, WMPR, in Jackson.
Each Wednesday night, he took to the air, never shy to share his opinion.
“I don’t believe in this African-American stuff,” he told listeners. “I’m the same old Negro. I’m the same old colored boy who fought and ducked and dodged and made possible for you black folks and African Americans to be where they are today.”
He continued backing Republican candidates, but when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Charles supported him. Each year, he has run the Medgar Evers Homecoming and Parade to honor his slain brother.
Thankful for Medgar
A half century after fate kept her from speaking at the March on Washington, Myrlie Evers-Williams in 2013 became the first laywoman to deliver the invocation for a presidential inauguration — marking the second term of the nation’s first African-American president.
A month before that, she had fulfilled a childhood dream, performing at Carnegie Hall.
She has since turned 80 and thinks back on Medgar, the man who changed the trajectory of her life.
“This man — who loved his country, who loved his state, who loved his people — knew that’s probably how his life would end, but he was willing to sacrifice for the benefit of all of us,” she said. “It was as if he fell that 6-feet-1.5-inches forward and gave freedom and justice a chance to move that much further.
“I’m thankful I knew him. I’m thankful I was the mother of his children. I’m thankful that I loved him and so thankful that he loved us, his state, his people and his nation.”