Monday, June 14, 2010
In Death, Evers Continues To Challenge Us
The Anniversary Of His Assassination Calls Us To Look Back, And Also To Ponder Our Responsibility To The Present And Future.
By Minrose Gwin
Friday, June 11, 2010
Do we Americans really know our civil rights history? It has been 47 years since Medgar Evers, the 37-year-old NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, was gunned down on June 12, 1963, in the driveway of his modest suburban home in Jackson. On the anniversary of his cold-blooded assassination, Evers' life's work calls us back to our civil rights past, and in so doing raises vexing questions about American memory and forgetfulness and the tenuous bonds between past and present social action.
At the time of Evers' murder, racial tension was at fever pitch. On the night he was shot, President John Kennedy had seized a confrontation with Gov. George Wallace over integration of the University of Alabama as an opportunity to pronounce segregation immoral and urge white America to search its conscience on the question of race.
What has become of Kennedy's challenge? In the age of Barack Obama, there has been a tendency to put to rest the bloody battles of the civil rights past and pronounce "mission accomplished." Even as the election of the first African-American president has sent riptides of race- and class-based anxiety through some segments of the U.S. population, we're told by some pundits that our sordid racial past is finally past.
Evers' hometown in Mississippi suggests otherwise. In some ways, Jackson seems just as split as it ever was. By the 2000 Census, only about a quarter of its population was white, and the city has lost thousands of residents in the past decade. The once-thriving black center of commerce, the Farish Street neighborhood, is for the most part a boarded-up ghost town and haven for drug dealers, though there are now plans to restore it. A handful of white children remain in the public schools; historically progressive Millsaps College, on its pretty hillock in the Belhaven neighborhood, has a high fence encircling its campus.
Jackson isn't alone. The demographics and tax bases of urban centers across the country have been drastically altered by white flight to the suburbs, even as gentrification of select urban sites commences. Small cities such as Durham, N.C., are rescinding tried-and-true plans that have ensured school diversity for decades.
All of this requires a vigilant forgetfulness, the kind of forgetfulness that makes whole populations invisible.
In his own times, Evers set a gold standard for the accuracy and fullness of memory in the face of willful forgetting or misremembering. He put on the clothes of a field hand to investigate murders in the rural backwaters of Mississippi. He wrote reports sizzling with outrage, made contacts with friendly reporters in secret meetings, started up the Mississippi Free Press to make civil rights news available in his home state. His behind-the-scenes tactics inched the Mississippi movement forward incrementally but sometimes almost imperceptibly.
Within the citywide and statewide frame of apartheid politics and vigilante violence, Evers' murder gestured both forward and backward in history.
At the time of his death, he was the highest-ranking public figure in the civil rights movement to be murdered. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, described her husband's murder as "an official act, for Medgar's energies were all directed against the official state of things in Mississippi." His death began a long, grim trajectory of political killings of major American leaders of the '60s and increasingly violent responses to civil rights activism in the South.
At the same time, Evers' assassination at the hands of a hate-filled white Southerner seemed also to be a re-enactment of three centuries of Southern history in which black men and youths were brutalized.
It took three trials and more than 30 years to put the unrepentant white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith behind bars.
Today, Jackson's airport and one of its main streets are named after Evers. The Evers house is a museum. The post office across the street from where Beckwith was taken after his conviction in 1994 bears Evers' name. There is a Medgar Evers library that has a larger-than-life statue of Evers out front. Other memorials outside of Jackson range from Medgar Evers College in central Brooklyn, founded in 1969, to the USNS Medgar Evers, a U.S. Navy supply ship dedicated in 2009. There's even a plaque honoring Evers at the University of Mississippi's law school. He was the first African-American to attempt to enter that school -- where his grandniece, Corrie Cockrell, recently received her law degree, almost a half-century after her great-uncle's rejection.
The anniversary of Evers' death calls us not only to remembrance, but also to what historians like Jacqueline Dowd Hall have called a "longer, harder civil rights movement" -- one that poses questions about our responsibility to the present and the future. In an interview this week, Evers-Williams recalled her husband's warning that "we may be fighting the battles that were fought years ago, but under more dangerous circumstances, mental and moral battles."
These are the aspects of Evers' story -- its presentness and its prescience -- that still draw us in. How, indeed, should we mourn and celebrate Medgar Evers and his plural singularity, his life and his willingness to lay it down for a better world? How do we remember him, both as the one and the many? And where should such remembrance lead?
Minrose Gwin is author of a novel set in Mississippi in the summer of 1963, "The Queen of Palmyra." She is working on a book about writings and songs that commemorate Medgar Evers.
Minrose Gwin teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Posted by tha artivist at 6:48 PM