It was just after midnight on June 12, 1963, when Medgar Evers pulled his Oldsmobile into his driveway in Jackson, Miss. Evers, who was the state field secretary for the NAACP, was arriving home late from a meeting.
He had been receiving constant death threats prompted by his civil rights work in the Deep South. His house had been firebombed. Someone had tried to run him over. The phone was a continual source of menace.
He and his wife, Myrlie Evers, had bought the single-story rambler in a new subdivision of Jackson, Miss., thinking it would provide safety for their family. The front door of the house purposely did not face the street. Instead, the main entrance was under the carport, providing cover, he thought, from snipers. That night, Evers pulled into the driveway and parked behind his wife’s vehicle.
As he emerged from his car, a white supremacist hiding in a honeysuckle bush raised his rifle and fired.
The shot hit Evers from behind with such force that it blasted a gaping hole in his back, passed through his chest and pierced the exterior wall of the house. The bullet shot through a kitchen wall, bounced off a refrigerator and landed in a cabinet. The shot that killed Evers was fired only hours after President John F. Kennedy delivered a major, televised speech on civil rights.
On Saturday, a new civil rights museum opened in Jackson that displays that rifle and tells the story of Evers and Mississippi’s other civil rights martyrs.
But much of the attention shifted from those being memorialized to President Trump, who generated a firestorm by attending.
Some civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and NAACP President Derrick Johnson, announced they would not stand alongside a president they regard as a racist.
Trump spoke briefly to a private gathering Saturday at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, acknowledging Evers, James Meredith and Martin Luther King Jr. as “heroes of the past.”
“The civil rights museum records the oppression inflicted on the African American community — the fight to end slavery, to end Jim Crow, to gain the right to vote — so that others might live in freedom,” he said.
The president also paid tribute to Myrlie Evers-Williams, 84, who was a driving force behind the creation of the museum.
She was still awake when the shot that killed her husband was fired.
Ironically, the shot from the high-caliber hunting rifle also injured the shooter, when it recoiled and pushed the scope into his eye.
“He dropped the weapon and fled,” according to FBI records. “The local police immediately found the rifle and determined that it had been recently fired. Back at the station, a fingerprint was recovered from the scope and submitted to the FBI.”
The FBI connected the prints to Byron De La Beckwith VI, a fervent white supremacist.
Evers had enraged white supremacists by examining the lynchings of black men in Mississippi. Evers also went undercover in overalls and investigated the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old killed on Aug. 28, 1955, in Money, Miss., after being accused of whistling at a white woman in a store. Till had been kidnapped and murdered by a white mob, which tied barbed wire and a heavy gin fan around his neck and dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River.
Evers knew that his civil rights work could get him killed in Mississippi.
“His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of [civil rights pioneer] Clyde Kennard left him vulnerable to attack,” according to the NAACP.
Medgar Wiley Evers was born July 2, 1925, near Decatur, Miss. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, fighting in the Normandy invasion.
He returned home from the war to a country that was still segregated. In 1954, after he applied for admission to the University of Mississippi Law School, Evers was rejected because of his race. Evers helped launch a campaign to desegregate the University of Mississippi.
“People often think it was James Meredith,” Myrlie Evers said in a 2001 interview with Essence Magazine. “But Medgar helped James get in. But he was the first to apply. That was unheard of to take that kind of risk at that time.”
The NAACP national office took an interest in the young civil rights advocate. In 1954, the organization named Evers the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi. He and his family moved to Jackson, where Evers began a fierce attack on segregated public facilities. He led rallies, economic boycotts and drives to register black voters.
The more he agitated against the status quo, the more threats Evers received.
On May 28, 1963, Evers’s house was firebombed after he organized a sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Jackson. Protestors were beaten and doused with catsup and mustard, according to the Holland Evening Sentinel newspaper.
Only five days before Evers’s death, a car tried to run him over as he left the NAACP office in Jackson. Evers told other freedom fighters who had expressed concern about the safety of civil rights leaders, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
In a speech televised on NBC News, Evers urged black people demanding equal rights in Jackson to boycott white merchants.
“Don’t shop for anything on Capitol Street. Let the merchants on Capitol Street feel the economic pinch. Let me say this to you. I had one merchant to call me,” Evers said. “He said, ‘I want you to know I talked to my national office today, and they told me to tell you, “We don’t need nigger business.” ’ The stores that support the White Citizens Council, the council that is dedicated to keeping you and I second-class citizens — let us not trade at these stores. Let’s urge our friends, our relatives, our neighbors not to trade at these stores. Finally, ladies and gentlemen, we will be demonstrating until freedom comes to Jackson, Mississippi.”
In “The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, Evers-Williams described her slain husband as a freedom fighter who “possessed raw courage and bravery enhanced by a generous dose of determination to secure these rights at all costs. They were aware that the ultimate price — the loss of life — might be the price. They did not seek recognition or glory. There was no glamour, just an unbreakable bond between those on the front lines. They were the ‘salt-of-the-earth,’ moving through their fear and placing all possessions, home, family, jobs, on the sacrificial plate of freedom.”
On June 12, 1963, Evers got out of his car carrying a stack of sweatshirts emblazoned with the logo “Jim Crow Must Go.”
After he was hit, he fell near the steps of the house. His wife and their three children, who had stayed awake late to watch Kennedy speak, heard the shot.
Their father had taught them that if they heard a gunshot, they were supposed to run to the bathroom and get in the tub. And they started to, Myrlie told Essence in a 2013 interview, “but my screams stopped them.”
Instead Myrlie and the children ran to the door, where they saw their father dying, she would testify later, “with his keys in his hand.”
Medgar Evers was pronounced dead 50 minutes later at the hospital. He was 37.
Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman, was arrested 10 days later. According to an FBI report, he “had been asking around to find out the location of Evers’s home for some time prior to the shooting.”
Twice in 1964, an all-white jury deadlocked on the charges.
“In two separate trials, local prosecutors presented a strong case,” according to an FBI report. “A number of police, FBI experts, and others testified on different parts of the evidence against Beckwith. But this was the 1960s, and in both trials, all-white juries did not reach a verdict. Beckwith went free.”
In 1989, prosecutors reopened the case, based on evidence published in the Clarion-Ledger newspaper that a secret pro-segregation state agency called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission had helped Beckwith’s attorneys screen jurors at trial.
On Feb. 5, 1994, more than 30 years after Evers was killed, Beckwith was found guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2002 at the age of 80.
The rifle he used to kill a civil rights hero went on display Saturday at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
This story has been updated.
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