Medgar Evers, who has been called the first martyred leader of the civil rights movement, was remembered Wednesday in an emotional memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery as a son of justice, a hero and a man on the right side of Mississippi’s divisive racial history.
Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was 37 when he was shot in his driveway by an avowed racist on June 12, 1963.
Committed to racial equity, he sought to end Jim Crow segregation and help blacks in the state register to vote. Evers served in World War II before attending college and becoming a leader in the civil rights movement.
The two-hour service in the old outdoor amphitheater at Arlington, where Evers is buried, was attended by his family and dignitaries. They spoke of Evers’s life, his legacy of racial progress and modern political challenges.
“He was a man who never wanted adoration, who never wanted the limelight,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, his widow and a former chairman of the NAACP’s board. “He was a man who saw the work that needed to be done and did it.”
Evers, who was neither an acclaimed orator like Martin Luther King Jr. nor a firebrand like Malcolm X, is not remembered as widely as those two slain civil rights leaders. But his work in the Deep South was remarkable.
Evers donned coveralls to investigate the lynchings of black people in rural Mississippi, and the month before he was killed, he gave a historic 17-minute speech on local television laying out the case for desegregation in the state. It was the first time a local black man had been on television in Mississippi arguing against Jim Crow.
Evers also issued an early challenge to segregation in higher education, applying to law school at the University of Mississippi in 1954. He was rejected because he was black.
“In the eye of history, he stands with [Marcus] Garvey, Malcolm, [Roy] Wilkins and King,” said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who reflected on Evers’s life, saying “his broad shoulders” made possible the election of President Obama and Holder’s selection as the first black U.S. attorney general.
Evers-Williams and Holder were joined on the dais by top officials of the NAACP, former president Bill Clinton, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) and members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Clinton put Evers’s death in the historical context of the string of assassinations and race riots that came before political change.
“The next time you hear people complaining in Washington about what rough business politics is, we might do well to recall 50 years ago and the sacrifices that were made,” Clinton said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said Evers would be proud of Mississippi’s progress, including the election of black elected officials, but disappointed that “the state continues to wage war on women. He appeared to refer to comments made by Bryant, at a forum Tuesday, that the nation’s educational troubles began because “both parents started working. And the mom is in the workplace.”
“We must not allow the social issues that [Evers] died for to go on unaddressed,” Thompson said.
On Tuesday, Obama hosted the Evers family in the Oval Office for a meeting that senior adviser Valerie Jarrett described as emotional. Obama told the family that “the death of Medgar Evers turned tragedy into a rallying cry” and “was a warrior for justice,” according to Jarrett.
The last time the family met privately with a president in the White House, the invitation came from John F. Kennedy, who offered condolences to the family after Evers’s death and said he thought the tragedy would spur support for civil rights legislation.