Our challenge of keeping the beacon lit
By Marian Wright Edelman
When Myrlie Evers-Williams gave the invocation at President Obama’s January inauguration, she was in part recognizing the vision and courage of her late great husband, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, assassinated by a gun 50 years ago.
Medgar was a huge inspiration for me. As a 22 year old first year law student at Yale, I traveled to Mississippi during my first spring break in 1961 to reconnect with my friends from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
I decided to apply to law school after volunteering for the Atlanta NAACP and seeing how many poor black people could not get or afford legal counsel. Few, if any, white lawyers took civil rights cases at that time.
Medgar Evers was the first welcoming face I saw when I arrived in Jackson, Miss. He took me to his home to meet and have dinner with Myrlie and their children, and then drove me up to the Mississippi Delta where the SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, Miss. was located, about 90 miles away. Our first news upon arrival was about a shooting which had terrorized the black community that day.
The next morning I joined SNCC workers and a group of poor black citizens who fearfully but courageously decided to go to the courthouse to try to register to vote and to show that gun violence was not going to deter them. We were met by a hostile white mob and burly white police officers with German Shepherds in tow.
I marvel to this day at the courage of SNCC leader Bob Moses’ courage in not moving when a police dog lunged at his thigh and ripped his pants. The would-be registrants scattered and all the SNCC leaders were arrested, throwing me car keys as they were taken off to jail.
I had the phone number of John Doar, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department in my jeans and I called him in a panic from a telephone booth—trying to describe the lawless scene.
In a steely calm voice, he admonished me to just state the facts and to control my emotions. I knew then in every pore of my being how it felt to be a poor, helpless, isolated, terrified black person in that lawless state. But I knew in those few horrible minutes that I would survive law school and come back to Mississippi to practice law and seek justice for the voiceless and voteless. I had found my calling.
Medgar was a Mississippi native, a graduate of Alcorn State University, and a World War II veteran who had fought for his country at the battle of Normandy but was turned away at gunpoint when he tried to vote back home.
After he was turned down for admission at the segregated University of Mississippi’s law school, he helped lay the groundwork for James Meredith to become the first African American admitted to that university. As the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, he was instrumental in coordinating civil rights activity in the state. He led by example, undeterred in the face of open white hostility.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, he was shot and killed in his driveway after returning home from an NAACP meeting. Byron de la Beckwith was finally convicted of the murder 31 years later thanks to Myrlie’s dogged persistence.
I returned to live in Mississippi in 1964, a year after Medgar Evers’s death, as a staff attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, helping to continue the work Medgar and others had begun and to provide legal help for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project workers organized by SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations, a coalition of civil rights groups, who had traveled to that closed society to shed light on it and support local black citizens who were seeking to exercise their right to vote.
Throughout the years, I never forgot Medgar’s personal kindness and support of a young first year law student and public example of courage and determination in the face of enormous danger and fear. So I warmly welcomed the opportunity to join Myrlie Evers-Williams earlier this month at the 2013 Heritage Convocation at their alma mater Alcorn State University.
How very different Mississippi and the nation might look to Medgar today. There is so much he would be proud of, but still so much left to do. He would of course be thrilled to see the country has elected its first African American president and to know Mississippi now leads the nation in the number of black elected officials even if their influence is under assault and waning.
But he would be disappointed to know that in Mississippi and elsewhere some people are resorting to Jim Crow-era tactics to disenfranchise voters in a desperate attempt to reverse 50 years of hard earned political progress.
He would be pleased to know that all public schools are technically available to all children and that many school systems are even led by black administrators. But he would be dismayed to learn that even so, many black children are still getting a separate, unequal, and failing education.
He might smile at the number of black doctors, lawyers, and millionaires in Mississippi now, but would be disappointed to know the state also has the highest child poverty, low birth weight, and infant mortality rates. He would also be so sad to see the number of young, middle-aged, and older black men in Mississippi’s prisons, trapped in a prison pipeline leading to social and economic death.
He would be relieved to know black Mississippians no longer live in constant fear of the Ku Klux Klan and the kind of white supremacist terrorism that took his life. But he would be alarmed by the proliferation of gun violence that still keeps residents of many black communities locked in their homes after dark in a new kind of American terror.
And he would be dismayed by the resurgence of hate crimes like the cruel hit-and-run death of James Craig Anderson, a black man assaulted and then run over in 2011 by a group of young white men who made a habit of coming to Jackson to assault and harass black people for sport. But he would be proud that they, unlike his own killer, were brought to justice swiftly by the county district attorney, the son of black civil rights pioneers.
In some ways the battles of the Civil Rights Movement were easier to fight 50 years ago because they were easier to see. Today the rigid lines that create two systems of opportunity for children in Mississippi and elsewhere are no longer written into law but remain present and the children know it. One group of children is still tracked towards limited opportunity, second class citizenship, and the invisible but powerful cradle to school to prison pipeline.
Strong adult voices for children have to become a stronger and stronger force if the clock of racial and economic progress is not to continue to move backwards. The fabric of family and community must be rewoven and the child must be placed at the center of all of our concerns.
Medgar Evers remains a beacon for all of us who are still inspired by his example and vision. We must not let all he lived and died for recede on our watch.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund.