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Honoring Civil Rights Hero Medgar Evers, Warrior for U.S. on More Than One Front

June 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Nearly half a century since his murder, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was honored in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. Gwen Ifill examines the life and legacy of Evers -- a World War II veteran and the NAACP's first field secretary in the South -- with Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, it’s been nearly half-a-century since civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered. Today, outside Washington, current and former leaders gathered to honor his life and legacy.

The somber sounds of memorial echoed this morning across Arlington National Cemetery, where Medgar Evers is buried. Evers, a veteran of World War II, died at the hands of an assassin in 1963.

Former President Clinton spoke of Evers as a warrior who fought for his country on more than one front.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON, United States: The meaning of Medgar Evers’ life was that he came home, and even though he had a gorgeous wife and beautiful kids and an unbelievable life to look forward to, he said, it can’t be that I was a soldier in the American Army and I stood up for freedom, and I can’t vote, and my neighbors can’t vote.

GWEN IFILL: Evers ultimately became the NAACP’s first field secretary in the South, as racial tensions boiled over. He was gunned down outside his home in Jackson, Miss. His family heard the shots as they waited for him inside.

It took more than 30 years for white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith to finally be convicted of the murder. He died in prison in 2001.

At President Obama’s second inaugural in January, Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, urged Americans to continue the push for equality. At Arlington today, she said her husband’s legacy lives on.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS, Widow of Medgar Evers: I can hear Medgar’s voice saying: “I thank all of you for believing in me, but it’s really not necessary. Just get out there and prove that you believe in me and that you believe in my country, which is our country.”

GWEN IFILL: Just last month, Evers-Williams delivered the commencement speech at the University of Mississippi, which once refused to admit her husband because of his race.

For more on the legacy of Medgar Evers, we turn to Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger, who won two George Polk Awards and a MacArthur genius grant for his investigative civil rights coverage.

Thank you. And welcome. Thank you for coming in.

JERRY MITCHELL, The Clarion-Ledger: Good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty years later, 30 years after — it took 30 years to find his killer.


GWEN IFILL: What kind of legacy does there exist now for Medgar Evers?

JERRY MITCHELL: I think his legacy in a sense is growing.

There’s a realization — you know, Martin Luther King said, one day, the South will recognize its true heroes. And I think that’s taking place before our eyes. We see the service today, the recognition of Medgar Evers.

You had President Clinton speak there and many others speak there. And I think that says something about the stature of Medgar Evers. When he died, the moment he died, he really wasn’t known nationally, but yet he became known through his death. And so his assassin, in trying to kill — in killing Medgar Evers, thought that he was going to kill the movement: I’m going to stop the movement.

And yet he didn’t. He kind of brought more attention it.

GWEN IFILL: Gave it more life. It feels like that assassination was a turning point in many ways in the movement.

JERRY MITCHELL: It really was, if you think about it, because, in the wake of that, and, of course, Kennedy’s assassination, you had the passage of the Civil Rights Act of ’64.

GWEN IFILL: Myrlie Evers, who I know you have spent a good deal of time with, said today at Arlington that she had recently seen for the first time, the actual rifle that was used to kill her husband.


It’s on — and, believe it or not, it’s on display right now as part of an exhibit at the Mississippi Department of Archives of History.


JERRY MITCHELL: And, of course, it has pictures of Medgar and his life. And she talked about that rifle as like the epitome of evil. But, yet, when it fired, it lit a fire that didn’t go out.

GWEN IFILL: Are the wounds still open?


I think, you know, there’s a certain amount of wounds that go through. I saw that this morning with the family. They mingled, hugs and tears and love, as they gathered themselves early this morning at the — in Arlington by the grave site.

GWEN IFILL: How about the South?


GWEN IFILL: I mean, you have chronicled, in fact, uncovered a lot of cold cases which otherwise would have gone — including of Byron De La Beckwith — that would have otherwise gone undiscovered.

Do you find that there’s more acceptance now, or is there still a lot of anger?

JERRY MITCHELL: I think it’s split.

I think there’s a certain amount of anger still out there. But I think more and more, over time, I think that people have come more to terms with, yes, we need to rectify this. This needs to happen. This needs to — you know, these convictions need to happen. They should have happened years ago and should have been done.

And so this is kind of a matter of cleaning up the past of what — you know, sometimes, there are things you can do about the past. And you can take things to — make steps to help improve that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you have certainly done things to change or at least illuminate the past. Did it change the direction of your career and your life in any way?

JERRY MITCHELL: It has changed my life completely.

I mean, I — Fannie Lou Hamer, one time, someone asked her why she chose to get involved in the civil rights movement. And she said, well, I didn’t choose it. It chose me.

And I kind of feel that way about my job, as one case seemed to lead to the next that led to the next. And now there have been — and I am not crediting myself with this, but there have been 24 convictions in these cold cases from the civil rights era.


You also recently discovered or republished — published for the first time an old Eudora Welty, the great Southern writer …


GWEN IFILL: Short story that she wrote about the assassination.


What is real fascinating is, the original version had Medgar Evers’ name in it and real Jackson landmarks and things like that. And all those got removed when Byron De La Beckwith got arrested, because there were concerns about libel and those kinds of things. So, New Yorker said to her, OK, you have got to take all that stuff out.

So she took it all out. So, we got permission from the Eudora Welty estate to actually print the — her original short story as she intended it.

GWEN IFILL: It was awfully angry.

JERRY MITCHELL: And that’s what she talked about.

She felt like it was the only thing she ever wrote in anger, and she said, I know what this killer was thinking. She literally wrote it from the mind-set of the killer. And it’s haunting. It’s haunting. It’s a haunting work.

GWEN IFILL: This whole episode in our history is haunting, with the anger and relief in honor today at least on the 50th anniversary.


GWEN IFILL: Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, thank you.

JERRY MITCHELL: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.