Civil rights activist
Myrlie Evers's life was shattered on June 12, 1963, when she opened her front door to find her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, dying on their porch — the victim of a sniper's bullet. In the days and weeks that followed, she showed her courage by continuing Medgar's fight for racial equality, even in the face of threats on her own life; and when her husband's murderer was allowed to walk free, Myrlie Evers showed her incredible persistence by working for 30 years to see justice done. Her dogged determination paid off in 1994, when Byron De La Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Medgar Evers.
A sheltered childhood in Vicksburg, Mississippi did little to prepare young Myrlie Beasley for the violent realities of her adult life. After her parents separated when she was very young, she was raised by her grandmother, Annie McCain Beasley, and an aunt, Myrlie Beasley Polk. Both of these women were schoolteachers and they inspired her to follow in their footsteps. In 1950, she enrolled at Alcorn A&M College as an education major intending to minor in music. But an incident occurred during her first day on campus that would alter her plans.
Myrlie met fellow student Medgar Evers — an upperclassman, an Army veteran, and a member of the football team. "He was strong, responsible and someone you could count on," she recalled to Ebony contributor Marilyn Marshall. Myrlie was swept off her feet, and the two were married on Christmas Eve of the following year. She left school, while Medgar went on to graduate in 1952 with a degree in business administration.
Medgar Evers had already been involved in civil rights work for several years. After serving in World War II, he and his brothers had dared to register to vote — a bold move for any black citizen in the South at that time. When Election Day arrived, however, the Evers brothers, along with other black voters, were blocked from the polls by about 200 armed white men. They left without casting their votes; and shortly thereafter joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) to begin working for change.
Medgar's involvement with the NAACP continued throughout college and into the first years of his marriage, when he earned his living as an insurance salesman. Myrlie credited her husband with raising her consciousness about matters of racial pride and justice. "He's the one who told me to stop biting my bottom lip and to be proud of my large lips," she told Karen Grigsby Bates in Emerge. "It was he who told me to stop straightening my hair and be proud of my kinky hair. It was Medgar who told me to stop using bleach on my face to be lighter and to be proud of my Blackness."
In 1954, Medgar became the Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP, establishing an office in the city of Jackson. Myrlie worked as his secretary and together they organized voter registration drives and civil rights demonstrations. As the civil rights movement gained in power, the dangers increased for those involved in it.
Myrlie recalled in Emerge that the simple act of registering to vote often brought disastrous consequences to those brave enough to do it: "Their names would be published in the newspaper with their addresses and phone numbers, and they would be harassed by phone calls, people driving by, throwing rocks, eggs, firebombs.... Or the banks would call in mortgages with no notice. People got fired from their jobs immediately. Or lassoed as they were walking home, dragged into a car [and then beaten]. All this because they wanted to vote."
As leaders of the movement, the Evers's were high-profile targets for the terrorist acts of pro-segregationists. Their lives grew complex with the necessity of elaborate subterfuge and intrigue. Medgar drove around Mississippi in various disguises, always taking a different route home to confuse anyone following him, and frequently switched vehicles several times during the course of one trip for the same reason. He and Myrlie used codes when speaking on the telephone, and they taught their three children to throw themselves to the floor upon hearing any strange sound outside as a means of protecting themselves from sniper attacks. Myrlie even rehearsed what steps she would take if her husband was shot in her presence. "It was a time when we never knew if we would see each other again when he left home — so we had an agreement with each other that we would never part in anger," she recalled in Emerge.
As the Movement and the violence continued to intensify, Medgar was haunted by the foreboding that his life was nearly over — a premonition that Myrlie shared. "We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day," she told Marshall. "Medgar knew what he was doing, and he knew what the risks were. He just decided that he had to do what he had to do. But I knew at some point in time he would be taken from me." During the spring of 1962, threats against the Evers family peaked due to Medgar's organization of a boycott of downtown Jackson's white merchants. Their home was firebombed one night while he was away at a meeting: Myrlie doused the flames with a garden hose, terrified all the while that snipers were waiting for her in the shadows outside.
Racial tensions were unusually high throughout the South on June 11, 1963. That evening, President John F. Kennedy made a televised speech in which he pleaded for racial harmony and announced that he would submit new civil rights legislation to Congress — a speech that infuriated many segregationists. The events of that fateful day stand out vividly in Myrlie Evers's memory. She told Bates: "That morning, after we embraced and said, 'Goodbye,' [Medgar] went out to the car and then came back in after a moment or two and embraced all over again.... He said, 'Myrlie, I'm so tired. I don't think I can make it, but I can't stop.'" After leaving home, he telephoned his wife several times throughout the day to say that he loved her.
As the night wore on, Myrlie sat up with the children, watching television as she waited for Medgar to return from his last meeting of the day. At approximately 12:30 a.m. on June 12, she was relieved to hear his Oldsmobile pull up in the driveway; but only a moment later, the sound of a gunshot rang out. The children fell to the floor as they had been drilled, while Myrlie ran outside to find her husband bleeding profusely. He had been shot in the back. Neighbors rushed the wounded man to nearby University Hospital (now the University of Mississippi Medical Center). "When they were putting him in the car, I understand he said, 'Let me go. Let me go,'" Myrlie told Bates. "Those were his last words. To this day, I regret that our well-meaning neighbors held me back and did not allow me to accompany him."
The University Hospital was open to whites only, and Medgar was at first refused admission. When hospital officials realized who he was, they broke the hospital's color barrier for the first time in its history — but too late to save Medgar Evers's life. He died some 50 minutes after being shot. Myrlie was devastated that she had not been able to follow through with the careful plans she had laid for dealing with just such a catastrophe. She told Marshall: "It took the longest time for our doctor to convince me that I could not have saved him if only I had stuffed his chest cavity with cloth."
Four thousand mourners attended Medgar Evers's funeral on June 15, 1963. As the procession wound through the streets of Jackson, onlookers began to chant: "After Medgar, no more fear! After Medgar, no more fear!" Myrlie Evers recounted in Emerge that "it was like a dam had burst, and people were no longer afraid."
About 150 feet from the site of the fatal shooting, an Enfield 30.06 military rifle had been found; the gun's scope was covered with the fingerprints of its owner, Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith, a 42-year-old fertilizer salesman, was an outspoken opponent of integration and a founding member of Mississippi's White Citizens Council. While publicly denying that he had anything to do with the Evers slaying, De La Beckwith unabashedly stated that he was glad it had happened. He boasted privately to at least one person of having done it: Bates wrote that De La Beckwith was later quoted as boasting at a Ku Klux Klan meeting: "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children.... We ask them to do that for us. We should do just as much."
Although the gun that had killed Evers was unquestionably De La Beckwith's, he claimed that it had been stolen from him a short time before the killing. A car matching the description of his had been seen by several witnesses near the Evers home on the night of the crime, but three policemen from his home town of Greenwood — some 60 miles from Jackson — testified that the suspected murderer had been there with them, playing cards. De La Beckwith was brought to trial, but the proceedings seemed a sham. Myrlie Evers had to fight for the simple right of being addressed as "Mrs. Evers" in court, and during her testimony, Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, sat with the accused, patting him on the back and putting his arm around him for support. An all-white jury deadlocked, letting De La Beckwith go free. When the case was retried a short time later, the result was the same.
Myrlie Evers struggled through those first months, flooded with feelings of bitter hatred for De La Beckwith and all he stood for. "I am not ashamed of it," she told Bates. "I'm human, and that was the only emotion that carried me through the first year. I lived to hate. I lived to pay back." After twelve months of widowhood, she decided that she and the children could no longer remain in the house she'd shared with her husband. "It was just too painful to be there," she was quoted as saying in Emerge. "You couldn't get all the blood out of the carpet. Too many reminders. Medgar had always said that Mississippi would be the best place to live, after Jim Crow got abolished.... But if we were ever to leave Mississippi, he said we'd move to California. So that's what we did." The Evers's home in Jackson has since been donated to Tougaloo College; the street on which it stands was declared a national historic site.
Claremont, a quiet college town some 30 miles east of Los Angeles, became Myrlie Evers's new home. There she enrolled in Pomona College and began working toward her bachelor's degree in sociology; she also wrote a book about her husband, entitled For Us the Living, and made numerous personal appearances on behalf of the NAACP. On the surface, her life seemed tranquil, but Evers retained the sense of peril that had marked her last years with her husband. "I still slept with a gun, even though I was afraid to do it because of the fact that the kids might come in at night," she confessed in Emerge.
After graduating from Pomona College, Evers became the assistant director of planning and development for the Claremont College system; eventually, she took a position as consumer affairs director for the Atlantic Richfield Company and moved to Los Angeles. In June of 1988, she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the city's five-member Board of Public Works. The powerful commission managed a budget of nearly a billion dollars and a staff of 5,000 employees; Evers was the first black woman to be a part of it. The life she created for herself in the aftermath of her husband's slaying was busy and fulfilling, but as the decades passed, she never lost sight of the fact that his killer remained unpunished. "Not a day passes when I don't think about him, or something he said or did," Marshall quoted her as saying.
Accordingly, Evers returned from time to time to Mississippi — to keep in touch with her roots, and to keep tabs on De La Beckwith. In 1989, her untiring search for new evidence paid off. She was told that several people might be willing to come forth and testify that De La Beckwith had indeed been in Jackson on the night of the murder. When she approached the state's attorney general about reopening the case, however, she was told that too much time had passed, and too much money would be wasted to justify such action. Undeterred, Evers informed the attorney general that she would reopen the trial with independent counsel; in the face of the bad publicity that this would generate for his state, the attorney general reconsidered his decision. But roadblocks continued to be thrown up to impede the progress of the retrial.
A key piece of evidence — De La Beckwith's rifle — had to be retrieved from the home of the judge who had presided over the original trial, where it was being kept as a souvenir. Evers was then told that no transcripts of the original trial could be found and without one, the retrial proceedings could go no further. She learned that a secret organization called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission — which from 1956 to 1973, funded with state taxpayers' money, had been charged with spying on civil rights activists and organizations — had spirited away important documents related to the killing, including all trial transcripts.
Fortunately, Evers had put an original transcript away in a safe deposit box many years before. She produced it, and in 1990, Byron De La Beckwith was reindicted for the murder of Medgar Evers, after new witnesses stepped forth to dispute his alibi. The key witness in the trial was Mark Reiley, a former hospital prison guard who had been in charge of De La Beckwith in 1979. At that time, De La Beckwith was jailed after police searched his car and found a bomb, other weapons, and a map to the New Orleans home of a prominent member of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Reiley testified that De La Beckwith had bragged to him about "killing that uppity nigger Medgar Evers."
On February 5, 1994, after deliberating for some seven hours, a jury of eight African Americans and four whites convicted 73-year-old De La Beckwith of Medgar Evers's murder, sentencing him to life in prison. Ronald Smothers reported in The New York Times that after the verdict was read, Myrlie Evers "broke into a smile, shouted a cheer and raised a clenched fist to the sky in triumph.... 'It sends a message that it is no longer open season on "jungle bunnies,"' she said, emphasizing the last two words. 'Medgar's life was not in vain, and perhaps he did more in death than he could have in life. Somehow I think he is still among us.'"
In 1995, the same year she lost her second husband, Walter Williams, whom she had married in 1975, Myrlie Evers made history when she became the first woman to chair the NAACP. In 1999, Little, Brown published her memoir, Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be, which describes her journey from being the wife of an activist to beoming a community leader in her own right.
— Joan Goldsworthy