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 f