Fifty years ago, a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers as he stood in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. The assassin’s bullet did what years of death threats, firebombings and other racialized intimidation had attempted, by ending his life, but it also invigorated civil rights activists throughout the South and beyond.
Today, a wreath was laid at the Arlington National Cemetary in Washington, D.C. during a service memorializing the life of Medgar Evers, who served as the NAACP’s first field secretary of the South. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the ceremony and recognized Evers’ work as “the foundation” that led to Barack Obama becoming the first black president and he becoming the first black head of the justice department.
“We gather today to thank Medgar Evers for his vision, his leadership, and his enduring impact,” said Holder. “In the eye of history he stands with Garvey, Malcolm, Wilkins and King.”
Holder noted that on June 11, 1963, Evers’ last day alive, “two brave students,” James Hood and Vivian Malone integrated the University of Alabama under the protection of National Guard, whose armed staff had to escort the two past a hostile Gov. George Wallace who stood in front of the university’s doors. Malone would later become Holder’s sister-in-law.
“Those of us who are old enough to remember that infamous ‘Stand in the Schoolhouse Door’ will never forget that moment, the progress that it marked, or the justice it secured,” said Holder. “Nor will we forget that, years earlier, Medgar Evers — who came from a family that had long fought against racial oppression — showed the same incredible courage when he did what was unthinkable then: registering to vote and applying to the University of Mississippi Law School.”
Evers’ wife Myrlie Evers-Williams and a number of civil war veterans have continued to keep Evers’ legacy alive, and have ceremonies planned over the next seven days in his commemmoration. Many of those services will be in Jackson, Miss., where an African American named Chokwe Lumumba just was elected mayor after defeating another African American, Cornelius Griggs, who ran independently. It’s also a state where hate crimes and racial discrimination is still prominent.
“Mississippi is a race-haunted place,” Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, told NPR. ”It took grass roots – women and children and men – to lead the effort for social change, and it was much harder in Mississippi than other places. And that story needs to be told. It’s not just this easy, Martin stood up and Rosa sat down and everybody’s free.”