Medgar Evers is my hero On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was murdered in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
“Hero” is a word thrown around so loosely that it has no real meaning left. The word is used to describe multimillionaires who can sink a putt, vicious criminals who ruin lives and then repent and teenagers who pretend to play guitar on a video game. The Carnegie Hero Fund has a perfect definition: “someone who voluntarily leaves a point of safety to assume life risk to save or attempt to save the life of another.” By that definition – or any definition – Medgar Evers is a hero.
After serving in World War II, Evers returned to his native Mississippi. He had an honorable discharge and a sterling record, but his rights as a Veteran were undermined by the omnipresent injustice he received as an African-American. Denied admission to the University of Mississippi, he still managed to get a college degree, begin a family with a woman every bit his equal, and channel his anger over discrimination into a movement that would change Mississippi forever.
At a time when Congress was too timid to pass a bill making it illegal to murder African-Americans, in a state where no white person had ever been convicted of killing a black person, Medgar Evers became its first NAACP field secretary. As Mississippi reeled from one racial murder to the next, from one egregious act of discrimination to the next, Medgar Evers could always be found heroically on the right side of history. When Emmett Till was murdered, it was Medgar Evers who went undercover, found the key witness, protected him, and made sure he could testify. When Clyde Kennard and James Meredith fought for their right to attend Ole Miss, Medgar Evers stood by their side. His life was threatened daily. Yet he refused to walk away from the crushing responsibility and terrible burden of standing for justice against a state that had made apartheid a way of life. Dist. Atty. Bill Waller twice prosecuted the killer, each trial ended with a hung jury.
Many in the North could not believe a killer was not sent to prison in the face of overwhelming evidence. Many in Mississippi could not believe that even one member of an all white jury would vote to convict a KKK leader for the murder of a NAACP man.
Year after year, decade after decade, Myrlie Evers sought justice for her husband. But even as Mississippi changed, and its vicious racial history became an embarrassment, the killer walked free. Jerry Mitchell, a brilliant young investigative reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, latched on to the story with the tenacity of a bulldog.
His great writing, and deep faith opened the door to what had seemed impossible: the arrest, trial, and conviction of the killer some three decades after the assassination. Mitchell has gone on to have a hand in the reopening of many “cold cases” from the Civil Rights Era. I have had the honor of working with him on two of those cases: the “Mississippi Burning” murders and the Clyde Kennard case. Jerry is an example of how one individual, armed with truth and rooted in faith, can change the world.
In 2004, along with three amazing students, I organized and hosted the official national day of remembrance on the 40th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ murder.
Government officials, Civil Rights veterans, celebrities and students from every state in the nation gathered at Arlington Cemetery for the event. Jerry Mitchell was not there. He declined the personal honor of being on international television. He was too busy at his desk in Jackson, on the trail of another murderer.