Medgar Evers became the first Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in December 1954 and held this position until his death on 12 June 1963. As field secretary, Evers led and organized voter registration drives and economic boycotts and provided assistance to individuals struggling against white oppression and racism.
Medgar Wiley Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, on 2 July 1925 to James and Jessie Evers. The Everses were strong proponents of education and made sure their children attended school for the full term. Segregation, however, forced Medgar and his siblings to attend Newton Vocational School instead of the all-white high school in Decatur. This type of inequality, combined with a family heritage of resistance to injustice, heightened his sense of fair play. The many examples of manhood exhibited by his father and the religious convictions of his mother bolstered his belief in equality for all. Evers grew up in the Church of God in Christ but in 1956 became a member of Jackson’s New Hope Baptist Church.
In 1943 Evers joined the US Army and served with the Red Ball Express, a truck convoy that brought supplies to Allied troops in the wake of the D-Day invasion. He went on to see combat in Liège and Antwerp, Belgium; and Normandy, Le Havre, and Cherbourg, France, receiving two combat stars and the Good Conduct Medal before returning to Mississippi in 1946. He and his older brother, Charles, registered to vote without incident but were denied the franchise on Election Day by an assembled white mob.
Both Everses enrolled at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1946. Medgar earned high school and college diplomas from the school, serving as editor of the campus newspaper and yearbook and as president of both the junior class and the student forum. He was also an active member of the debate team, college choir, football team, and track team. He married fellow Alcornite Myrlie Beasley on Christmas Eve 1951, and they went on to have three children, Darryl Kenyatta, Reena Denise, and James Van Dyke.
After graduating in 1952 Medgar and Myrlie Evers moved to all-black Mound Bayou, where he worked for the Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company. His January 1954 application to the University of Mississippi Law School was rejected because of his race, but the application brought Evers to the attention of the NAACP, which was looking to establish a stronghold in the state in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. He recruited for the NAACP and helped organize a successful boycott against area gas station owners who denied African Americans use of restroom facilities.
In January 1955 the Evers family relocated to Jackson. As field secretary Evers investigated instances of police brutality, murder, voter discrimination, economic intimidation, rape, and lynching, including the 1955 abduction and murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Money. Evers was also responsible for recruiting and retaining members for the NAACP and for providing African Americans with various forms of assistance.
By the early 1960s Evers had shifted toward direct action as the primary method for achieving social, political, and economic equality—for example, by organizing boycotts of discriminatory local stores and national chains in downtown Jackson. He also served as an adviser to James Meredith during his 1962 effort to integrate the University of Mississippi and supported student sit-in and read-in demonstrations in the state capital. In August 1962 the Everses petitioned the Jackson Separate School District to reorganize the schools under its jurisdiction on a nonsegregated basis. Medgar Evers also played an active role in a variety of civil rights organizations, among them the Citizens’ Committee for Human Rights of Jackson and Operation Mississippi, which sought to “wipe out segregation in all phases of Mississippi life.”
By June 1963 Evers had spent almost nine years working to bring national attention to the lack of respect for human life and violence—both random and deliberate—perpetrated against black Mississippians. He consistently apprised political officials in Washington of events in Mississippi as a means of linking the civil rights struggle in the state to the national struggle for equality. He sent reports of injustices and abuses to the FBI and the Justice Department for documentation and to the NAACP’s national office in New York for publication. He understood that his activism made him a target but was more concerned about how his death might affect his family than about his personal safety.
Just after midnight on 12 June 1963, Evers arrived home from a strategy meeting at New Jerusalem Baptist Church. He got out of his car in the driveway and was shot in the back with a high-powered rifle. He died less than an hour later at University Medical Center. On 15 June a funeral was held in Jackson, and four days later he was buried with full military honors at Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery. Police arrested white extremist Byron De La Beckwith, and he was charged with the murder, but two 1964 trials ended in hung juries. A Mississippi jury finally convicted him of killing Evers on 5 February 1994 and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He died in prison in 2001.
Evers’s contributions to the movement for civil equality in Mississippi have received extensive recognition, both within the state (his name appears on numerous streets and buildings as well as on Jackson’s international airport) and elsewhere (for example, schools in Illinois and Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York). In 2003 the Mississippi legislature honored his service with House Concurrent Resolution No. 94. The Medgar Evers Papers are available for scholars to research at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
- Charles Evers and Andrew Szanton, Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story (1997)
- Medgar Wiley Evers and Myrlie Beasley Evers Papers, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- Myrlie Evers-Williams with William Peters, For Us, the Living (1967)
- Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (2005)
- Michael Vinson Williams, Medgar Evers: Mississippi Martyr (2011)