I’ve been driving through Dixie for days when at last I enter Jackson, Mississippi, a disconcertedly quiet place that doesn’t even know I’m there. It’s a contrast to the smaller southern towns I’ve recently visited, many of which seemed acutely interested in the white guy in the rental car asking questions about civil rights. I’m just here to gather stories, I explained, from the people who lived them. Though as I’d found, many of the people who’d lived them were no longer alive, making their stories difficult to tell. I didn’t know how to persuade the dead to talk or the living to listen. I drove to Jackson anyway.
In 1933 or so, an eight-year-old named Medgar Evers watched a man named Willie Tingle get dragged through the streets of their town. This was in Decatur, Mississippi—70 miles west of Jackson. Willie, a family friend, had made the mistake of allegedly talking back to a white woman. He paid the price with his body. He was dragged, he was shot, he was hanged. He was reduced to his blood-stained clothes. Medgar and his brother Charles passed Willie’s clothes daily while walking to school. For black boys in Mississippi the message was clear: if you keep your eyes low and your feet moving, there’s a chance you might survive.
Twenty-two years later, a boy named Emmett Till was alleged to have talked back to a white woman. He, too, paid a price with his body. One night in August 1955 he was abducted by a pair of men in Money, Mississippi, who beat him, shot him, tied a gin fan round his neck. Once his body was recovered, it was placed in a casket, its lid flung wide. At his funeral, Emmett’s mother wept as she stared at the face that no longer resembled her son. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she remarked. The world looked. Sometimes we still look. Which is another reason I drove to Jackson.
Twenty or so years after Medgar Evers passed Willie Tingle’s blood-stained clothes, he was dispatched to investigate the murder of Emmett Till. Medgar talked, he listened, he tried to secure all the witness testimony he could. His efforts went unrewarded. The all-white jury deliberated for 67 minutes, which was all the time they had for a black boy. “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop,” one juror remarked, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
“The exhibition of the brutalized black body,” writes Southern literature scholar Minrose Gwin, “is mired in a complex history of white voyeurism.” Which makes me the white voyeur in this scenario, as I pull my car to the side of the road just outside Medgar Evers’s home in Jackson. Today it’s more formally called the Medgar Evers Home Museum, though it holds no regular hours. In the weeks preceding my visit, I’d placed a call to Minnie Watson, an archivist at nearby Tougaloo College, who agreed to give me the tour. But upon pulling the car to the side of the road, I am the only one there: the voyeur, the tragedy tourist. The white man in the predominantly black neighborhood—much like Medgar’s killer.
When Medgar wasn’t getting murdered, he was a father, a husband, and an NAACP field secretary. He was raised in Mississippi. He knew its backroads and its fishing holes and the kind of foliage-filled lots that might just hide an assassin. Shortly after breakfast on the day he was killed, he peered out at the tuft of shrubs in the lot across the street. He studied it curiously, then slipped inside his blue Oldsmobile and drove away.
Myrlie Beasley was a freshman at Mississippi’s Alcorn State University when she first met Medgar Evers, the junior class president and football star who’d taken an interest in her. “Although for a week I thought his name was Edgar Evans,” Myrlie wrote in her memoir, For Us, the Living. Medgar could often be found walking Myrlie back to her dorm following choir practice, or frequenting the music studio where she played piano. Some days they’d wander the civil war battlefield in nearby Vicksburg, wandering among the silent canons. Later, when they were parents, Medgar and Myrlie returned often to that battlefield with their children. Maybe they wanted to instill within them some lesson on history. Or maybe, some lesson on sacrifice.
A few hours before parking alongside Medgar’s home, I park alongside the home belonging to civil rights activist Hezekiah Watkins. Over coffee he tells me about the time he was jailed with Dr. King, and of his years working alongside James Bevel. He tells me, too, how on the evening of June 11, 1963, he was handed a .22 caliber pistol and told to keep an eye on the perimeter surrounding the church where Medgar was scheduled to speak. “I was about sixteen,” Hezekiah says. “Was I going to use it? I didn’t know. But I had it. It was in my pocket while I was riding my bicycle.” Hezekiah did his part to ensure Medgar’s safety that night. At least for a little while.
It wasn’t until Medgar’s involvement in the Emmett Till case that Myrlie began to fear for her husband’s life. “Medgar would leave the house for one of his trips to the Delta, and I could feel my stomach contract in cold fear that I would never see him again,” Myrlie wrote. In hindsight, we now know Myrlie’s fears only half come to fruition. By the grace of God, night after night, Medgar always returned home from the Delta. He was murdered in his driveway, instead.
One evening Myrlie answered the phone to hear a slew of insults hurled her way. She could only endure it for so long, and after she hollered, “Why don’t you go to hell?” Medgar got on the line and proceeded to talk to the caller. The call lasted for some time, until, by its end, Myrlie recalled her husband and the caller speaking “almost cordially.” Upon hanging up, Medgar turned to his wife. “Myrlie,” he said, “don’t ever do what you did. If you can’t take it just put the phone down. But don’t curse at them. You can sometimes win them over if you are just patient enough.”
On June 7, 1963—less than a week before his murder—an FBI report noted Medgar’s concern that his phones were being bugged. “Evers’s suspicions that his office and home phones are being tapped date back to three or four years ago,” the report reads. “These suspicions were aroused because of unusual amount of static and telephone lines and a feeling as if he were listening in a vacuum.” In a memo dated the following day, the director of the FBI was informed that the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co. of Jackson had checked all the phone lines both at Medgar’s office and home and found nothing to indicate a tapped line. Surely he could rest easy now, for the next five days or so.
One night while lying in bed beside Myrlie, Medgar said, “If I go tonight, if I go next week, if I go next year, I feel I’m ready to go.” He had plenty of reasons to believe his life was in danger. Not just because he was a black man in Mississippi, but because he was a black man in Mississippi who didn’t know his place. Who’d forgotten, it seemed, that black men in Mississippi who want to survive ought to keep their eyes low and feet moving. Shortly after becoming Mississippi’s field secretary, Medgar was one of nine people placed on a so-called “death list.” In the days leading up to his murder, he’d been warned of renewed threats against his life. One day
in June of 1963 Myrlie ironed a week’s worth of her husband’s shirts. Medgar thanked her, but offered, too, that he wasn’t going to need that many shirts.
One day Medgar gathered his three children and asked, “What is the safest place in the house?” The children wandered their home, eyeing the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. Eventually, much to Medgar’s satisfaction, they agreed that the bathroom was likely the safest place in the home. No one picked the driveway. Even the children knew better than that.
Father’s Day was just a few days away, and in anticipation, eight-year-old Reena had already completed her hand-made card. She’d pressed wildflowers in its interior, and with her red crayon scrawled “I love you, Daddy.” I imagine he would have cherished the card. He didn’t live to see it.
In late May of 1963, less than two weeks before Medgar’s murder, a firebomb was hurled into the Everses’ carport. It was after midnight, the kids were asleep, and Myrlie woke with a start. She ran outside, reached for the firehose, and doused the remains of the flame. Later that night Medgar and Myrlie wandered their home, taking stock of all they hadn’t lost. “I don’t know what I’d do if anything ever happened to you or the children because of what I’m doing,” Medgar confided. “It’s not us,” Myrlie replied. “It’s you they’re after.”
The following morning, upon hearing of the bombing, nine-year-old Darrell Evers announced to his family that he hated white people. “Then you’re wrong,” Medgar said. “You’re hurting yourself. You shouldn’t hate white people. You shouldn’t hate anyone. That’s no way to live.” He glanced toward his son, softening: “It’s not good for a little boy’s heart to hate.”
At a few minutes past midnight on June 12, 1963, the Evers children heard their father’s Oldsmobile rumble into the drive. “Daddy’s home!” Reena called. They leapt up, preparing to meet him.
Outside, amid the honeysuckle in the lot across the street, a fertilizer salesman from Greenwood, Mississippi watched Medgar step out from his car. Medgar’s 5’11” frame reached for some T-shirts, which he held as he headed toward the side door. He took a step, then another step, then a—.
The bullet pinballed—boring through Medgar’s right shoulder blade before hurtling through the living room window. It hit a wall, then ricocheted off the fridge before coming to a halt on the kitchen counter. There it was, suddenly docile and dumb. Like a crumb to be wiped away.
Reena did exactly as she’d been trained: she hit the floor alongside her brothers. Together, the Everses’ children crawled to the bathroom, the safest place, and waited for the danger to pass.
Myrlie flipped on the carport light to find her husband face down in the drive. Outstretched in his hand was the key to their home, which he’d never use again. Piled alongside him were the shirts he’d retrieved from the car. Emblazoned across their front was a slogan Medgar had been advocating for years: “Jim Crow Must Go.” Such a simple message. And yet, impossible.
The children heard their mother scream and pulled themselves from the bathtub. They crowded around their father, pleaded with him to get up. Father’s Day was just a few days away and wouldn’t he please, please get up? Across the street, a fertilizer salesmen removed himself from the honeysuckle. He dropped his rifle into some nearby bushes, then drove away from the scene. Meanwhile, others rushed toward it: friends, neighbors, anyone who thought they might help. A few men removed Reena’s mattress from her bed and used it as a gurney for her father. Medgar and the mattress were placed in the back of a car, and the children watched as their father disappeared. “Mommy, don’t cry,” Reena soothed. “Maybe Daddy can get some rest now.”
Medgar was driven to a local hospital where, after some debate, the doctors agreed to admit the black man. Medgar died within an hour. His final words: “Turn me loose.” What choice did anyone have?
Minnie, a tall, middle-aged black woman, arrives at Medgar Evers’s home shortly after I do. I thank her for her time. “No problem,” she says as she flips through her keys. “Just give me a moment to set up.” I loiter in the front yard as Minnie enters Medgar’s house, opening the curtains, flicking on the lights. “Okay,” she says, “come on in.” I enter through the side door and stand in the living room. She tells me to make myself at home.
This is not my home. Those are not my beige couches. And that upright piano, that is not mine, either. Those are not my children in the photos. Those are not my children’s beds on the floor. Those are not their toys, not their books, not their stuffed animals propped against the pillows. Those are not my clothes in the closet. That is not my change on the dresser. Not my cufflinks, not my pocketknife, not my mirror. Yet when I look into that mirror, that is certainly me reflected back—a white man from the North in a house that is not his own.
In a 1958 issue of Ebony magazine, a fresh-faced, burgeoning civil rights leader named Medgar Evers acknowledged his willingness to die for the cause. “And as long as God gives me strength to work and try to make things real for my children, I’m going to work for it—,” he said, “even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice.”
Forty-five years after Medgar’s death, I discover a letter in an Alabama archive. It’s addressed to University of Alabama President O.C. Carmichael, under whose purview desegregation was first attempted in 1956. The letter writer informed the university president that segregation must be preserved “at all costs.” Seven years later, on the very day the University of Alabama successfully desegregated, the letter writer— a fertilizer salesman named Byron de la Beckwith—positioned himself in some honeysuckle across the street from Medgar Evers’s home. He lifted his eye to the scope, his finger to the trigger, and tried to preserve segregation at all costs.
Over a cup of gumbo at the Mayflower Café, award-winning Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell tells me how he gets murderers to talk. The trick, Jerry says, smoothing his tie, is to go to them. One day in April of 1990 Jerry made the long drive from Jackson to Signal Mountain, Tennessee, to talk to Byron de la Beckwith. Jerry arrived midafternoon, and for the next six hours, listened as Beckwith ranted about his troubles with black people. After filling a notebook, Jerry thanked Beckwith for speaking with him, then stood to leave. “It was starting to get dark,” Jerry tells me, “and he insisted on walking me out to the car. I was like, ‘Really, that’s okay. I think I can handle it.’ He walked me out anyway.” The pair stepped outside into the evening, and as Jerry reached for the door of his car, Beckwith offered a warning: “If you write positive things about white Caucasian Christians, then God will bless you. If you write negative things about white Caucasian Christians, God will punish you. And if God does not punish you,” he added ominously, “then several individuals will do it for Him.”
Minnie walks me to the carport where the hint of a rust-colored bloodstain remains. She points to it, then lifts her finger to direct my eyes to the location across the street where the gun was fired. She tells me that Medgar’s home has no front door because a front door would’ve left him and his family exposed to an assassin’s bullet. She tells me the bedroom windows were built high and the children’s beds kept low as further deterrents to keep the bullets away. “Now then,” she says, “any questions?”
I know how you transform a man into a martyr, but how do you transform a martyr back into a man?
A century before Medgar’s murder, the Siege of Vicksburg raged. After a 48-day campaign, the Union emerged victorious, crippling one of the last vestiges of Confederate power along the Mississippi. Soldiers paid the price with their bodies. In the 1958 photograph featured in Ebony, the Evers family has their backs to the camera. Myrlie’s hands hold her children’s hands—Reena on the left, Darrell on the right. And to the right of them stands Medgar, his left hand resting softly atop his young son’s head. “The Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg should remind all of us of the futility of armed conflict,” Medgar informed the journalist. “Despite its history, it is one of the state’s most beautiful spots…”
“Medgar, of all people, was not blind to Mississippi’s flaws, but he seemed convinced they could be corrected,” Myrlie wrote. “He loved his state with hope and only rarely with despair. It was the hope that sustained him. It never left him. Despair came infrequently, and a day of hunting or fishing dispelled it. The love remained.”
Despite the bombings and the phone calls and the threats against his family’s life, somehow, some way, the love remained.
In the summer of 1996, it happened all over again. Another hot night in Jackson. Another black man walking toward the side door directly outside Medgar’s home. This time, though, when the shot rang out the cameras were rolling. On cue, the actor playing Medgar pulled a cord to trigger the blood package strapped to his back. The blood—a mixture of glycerin and chocolate syrup—went everywhere. According to Willie Morris’s The Ghost of Medgar Evers, this was only the third time in American cinematic history that the movie version of a murder had been filmed at the home where the actual murder took place. How startling it must’ve been for the longtime neighbors, who’d witnessed Medgar’s murder all those years before. And how startling for Medgar’s brother Charles, who chose to bear witness to the scene. Chose to watch as an actor who looked like his brother (but was not his brother) toppled in his brother’s driveway again and again. Watched, too, as the miracle occurred: the way that man rose from the dead, brushed himself off, and did it all again.
After leaving Medgar’s home, I spend the rest of the afternoon walking the streets of Jackson. Ahead of me, I spot the dome of Russell C. Davis Planetarium, and I take advantage of the opportunity to vacate our planet for a while. I fork over five bucks, then settle into my seat in the nearly empty auditorium. Tilting my head skyward, I try to pay attention to the narrator’s booming voice. But all I can think about is a man named Medgar wandering a battlefield alone. And a boy named Emmett toeing the waterline of a mud and blood filled river. Inside that dark theater, the combination of air-conditioning and the narrator’s voice eventually lulls me to sleep. It is a glorious sleep, and I dream myself back home to my family. When I awake some time later, all I see above me are stars. I rub my eyes, regain my bearings, and listen to the booming voice over the loudspeakers. “Let us take comfort in the stability of our own world,” the narrator says. What stability? I wonder.
“You happy?” the waitress asks. I’m alone in a booth in a restaurant somewhere in Jackson. “Hmm?” I ask trying hard to focus on the question. “I said,” she repeats, slower this time, “are you happy?” Such a simple question. And yet, impossible.
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Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through his Writings, Letters, and Speeches. Basic
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—. “Simply ‘Daddy’: Reena Evers-Everette Shares Memories of Medgar.” The Clarion-Ledger. 1 June
Morris, Willie. The Ghost of Medgar Evers: A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi and Hollywood. Random
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