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Child Watch® Column: "The Courage and Vision of Medgar Evers"

Release Date: February 8, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

“One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes to today’s expression of a more perfect union . . . Where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance, and that the visions of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.”

--Myrlie Evers-Williams, 2013 Presidential Inaugural Invocation

When Myrlie Evers-Williams gave the invocation at President Obama’s January inauguration, she was in part recognizing the vision and courage of her late great husband, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, assassinated by a gun 50 years ago. Medgar was a huge inspiration for me. As a 22 year old first year law student at Yale, I traveled to Mississippi during my first spring break in 1961 to reconnect with my friends from SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After the sit-in movement and SNCC’s founding at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Dr. King and Ella Baker pulled those of us who had sat down at lunch counters together from across the South, I decided on the spur of the moment to apply to law school after volunteering for the Atlanta National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and seeing how many poor Black people could not get or afford legal counsel. Few, if any, White lawyers took civil rights cases at that time.

I had been thinking about going to graduate school to study 19th Century Russian Literature and entering the Foreign Service but was jolted by such great need and injustice all around me at home. So remembering my daddy’s reminder that God ran a full employment economy and if you followed the need you’d never lack for a worthwhile purpose in life, I applied to law school—with no understanding of what it entailed. Many of my SNCC friends had gone into the poorest and most dangerous states of the South to organize poor Black citizens to vote and demand a better life. I needed to reconnect with my courageous friends that spring to be reminded of why I was in law school studying corporations and property law. So off I went to Mississippi.

Medgar Evers, the local head of the NAACP, was the first welcoming face I saw when I arrived. He picked me up at the Jackson, Mississippi airport, took me home to meet and have dinner with Myrlie and their children, and then drove me up to the Mississippi Delta where the SNCC headquarters in Greenwood was located, about 90 miles away. Our first news upon arrival was about a shooting which had terrorized the Black community that day.

The next morning I joined Bob Moses and James Forman and other local SNCC workers and a scraggly group of poor Black citizens who fearfully but courageously decided to go to the courthouse to try to register to vote and to show that gun violence was not going to deter them. We were met by a hostile White mob and burly White police officers with German Shepherds in tow—the first time police dogs were brought out to attack civil rights workers in the 60s. I was at the end of the line—having promised my mother and my Mississippi born Yale Law professor that I would not be arrested. I marvel to this day at Bob Moses’ courage in not moving when a police dog lunged at his thigh and ripped his pants. The crowd of Black would-be registrants scattered and all the SNCC leaders were arrested, throwing me car keys as they were taken off to jail right down the street, followed by the menacing mob and police with dogs, to be tried immediately. I had the phone number of John Doar, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Justice Department, in my jeans and I called him in a panic from a telephone booth—trying to describe the lawless scene and realizing that all three of the Black lawyers in the state who would take civil rights cases were 90 miles away in Jackson. In a steely calm voice, he admonished me to just state the facts and to control my emotions. I knew then in every pore of my being how it felt to be a poor, helpless, isolated, terrified Black person in that lawless state. I ran from the phone booth to the courthouse and tried to go up the steps to help my SNCC friends but was blocked from entering the front door. I went around to a side alley to try to get into the back door and was again blocked by police. But I knew in those few horrible minutes that I would survive law school and come back to Mississippi to practice law and seek justice for the voiceless and voteless. I had found my calling.

Medgar was a Mississippi native, a graduate of Alcorn State University, and a World War II veteran who had fought for his country at the battle of Normandy but was turned away at gunpoint when he tried to vote back home. After he was turned down for admission at the segregated University of Mississippi’s law school, he helped lay the groundwork for James Meredith to become the first African American admitted to that university. As the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, he was instrumental in coordinating civil rights activity in the state. He led by example, undeterred in the face of open White hostility.

In the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, he was shot and killed in his driveway after returning home from an NAACP meeting. Byron de la Beckwith was finally convicted of the murder thirty-one years later thanks to Myrlie’s dogged persistence.

I returned to live in Mississippi in 1964, a year after Medgar Evers’s death, as a staff attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, helping to continue the work Medgar and others had begun and to provide legal help for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project workers organized by SNCC and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights groups, who had traveled to that closed society to shed light on it and support local Black citizens who were seeking to exercise their right to vote.

Throughout the years, I never forgot Medgar’s personal kindness and support of a young first year law student and public example of courage and determination in the face of enormous danger and fear. So I warmly welcomed the opportunity to join Myrlie Evers-Williams at the 2013 Heritage Convocation at their alma mater Alcorn State University this week. How very different Mississippi and the nation might look to Medgar today. There is so much he would be proud of, but still so much left to do.

He would of course be thrilled to see the country has elected its first African American president and to know Mississippi now leads the nation in the number of Black elected officials even if their influence is under assault and waning. But he would be disappointed to know that in Mississippi and elsewhere some people are resorting to Jim Crow-era tactics to disenfranchise voters in a desperate attempt to reverse 50 years of hard earned political progress. The sight of older Black voters standing in long lines at the polls last November anxious about being rejected and turned away would likely bring sad flashbacks of the young veteran chased from the polls at gunpoint.

He would be pleased to know that all public schools are technically available to all children and that many school systems are even led by Black administrators. But he would be dismayed to learn that even so, many Black children are still getting a separate, unequal, and failing education. He might smile at the number of Black doctors, lawyers, and millionaires in Mississippi now, but would be disappointed to know the state also has the highest child poverty, low birth weight, and infant mortality rates. He would also be so sad to see the number of young, middle-aged, and older Black men in Mississippi’s prisons, many of the former for pot possession and use, trapped in a prison pipeline leading to social and economic death.

He would be relieved to know Black Mississippians no longer live in constant fear of the Ku Klux Klan and the kind of White supremacist terrorism that took his life. But he would be alarmed by the proliferation of gun violence that still keeps residents of many Black communities locked in their homes after dark in a new kind of American terror. And he would be dismayed by the resurgence of hate crimes like the cruel hit-and-run death of James Craig Anderson, a Black man assaulted and then run over in 2011 by a group of young White men who made a habit of coming to Jackson to assault and harass Black people for sport. But he would be proud that they, unlike his own killer, were brought to justice swiftly by the county district attorney, the son of Black civil rights pioneers.

In some ways the battles of the Civil Rights Movement were easier to fight 50 years ago because they were easier to see. Today the rigid lines that create two systems of opportunity for children in Mississippi and elsewhere are no longer written into law but remain present and the children know it. One group of children is still tracked towards limited opportunity, second class citizenship, and the invisible but powerful cradle to school to prison pipeline.

Despite having more elected officials and professionals now, there are fewer of the adult leaders on the ground who were once present in every community and totally focused on mentoring and preparing the next generation, teaching strong values, setting high standards, and making sure the future was better for Black children. Many crucial socializing institutions—family, church, neighborhood, community—have frayed. There are strong leaders still in Mississippi and elsewhere who are struggling to fight for equal education and justice for all children but they must multiply dramatically in numbers, strength, effectiveness, and voice in the face of unjust school policies and practices, like zero tolerance school discipline, and unjust law enforcement tactics. There is no excuse in 2013 for people of any color to fear joining the struggle for equality and justice and to be afraid to speak up for what’s right and just and hold our political leaders accountable. Strong adult voices for children have to become a stronger and stronger force if the clock of racial and economic progress is not to continue to move backwards. The fabric of family and community must be rewoven and the child must be placed at the center of all of our concerns. Medgar Evers remains a beacon for all of us who are still inspired by his example and vision. We must not let all he lived and died for recede on our watch.


Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Submitted by jfriesen at: February 11, 2013
Thanks for sharing that history with us. It is so true that we need more strong voices for children. I read and appreciate the motivation that I receive from these columns and other writings.

Submitted by T. Ellison at: February 11, 2013
As I read this colum my heart was once again full, because the state of our nation (our children). Most of our children do not even know the price that has been paid for what freedom they have today. Somewhere we lost the zell to teach children about why they should be proud our their hertiage. I thank God for this colum because it is like looking in a mirror, because the same hidden adgenda for Black America is still the same for some people... not all people. Netherless God has a plan and WE are a part of it. I will continue to do my part as many other's are doing. We must stand to make a difference for future generations in our nation. My website is saferefuge.org. May God bless America

Submitted by T. Ellison at: February 11, 2013
As I read this colum my heart was once again full, because the state of our nation (our children). Most of our children do not even know the price that has been paid for what freedom they have today. Somewhere we lost the zell to teach children about why they should be proud our their hertiage. I thank God for this colum because it is like looking in a mirror, because the same hidden adgenda for Black America is still the same for some people... not all people. Netherless God has a plan and WE are a part of it. I will continue to do my part as many other's are doing. We must stand to make a difference for future generations in our nation. My website is saferefuge.org. May God bless America

Submitted by slingandring at: February 10, 2013
A well written and beautifully heart felt message. I grew up in the South doing the 1960's and saw not quite the violence that was so prevalent in the deep South. As you say we must stand for what is right and that our children learn right from wrong.

Submitted by Destiny 510 at: February 10, 2013
Thank you for reminding us of Mr. Evers' dedication and courage. I am active in my community and committed to building strong families, teaching our rich history and the responsibility that we have in a democratic society. Stay strong and inspired as we continue.

Submitted by MareED at: February 9, 2013
Thank you so much for this. I was initially shocked when I read about this crime and a a 2nd hit and run murder reported by CNN recently. Hatred is learned and the madness of MS racism still runs wild, rampant and freer than in most US states. Possibly because it was such a virulent and vicious form. Clearly white people are very threatened by the number of black people in MS because they are steady trying to keep them scared. MS makes racism look like the disease it is. How sad for us all this state in America. I am so thankful to you for reminding me of the brave and bright Medgar Evers. His life was an example of the goodness. The spotlight needs to be focused on MS so people can be constantly reminded of the evil that men do and also of their own power and strength. Young people need to be able to recite our stories. Old people need to know they are not in this alone. We need to stand together to resist the prison pipeline and the mis-education of our youth. We need to question why school boards are run by people who do not educate their own children in the schools. We outside of MS need to keep talking and tweeting and shining the light on the darkness of these states that continually manipulate and malign communities of color. Your column has helped to shine the light on this darkness. I believe more natives from MS would if they could but we now why they can't. If there is a way that the pressure can be put on from outside I pray that it will such that Mr. Evers did not die in vain. Once again, I thank you so very much.

Submitted by Paddy at: February 9, 2013
Marian, I am 78 years old. CDF has been named a beneficiary of my CRUT. My husband and I have taken teams to the Delta to build houses for Habitat for sixteen years. I am just reading John Lewis' Walking With the Wind, which brings back so many memories of how hard it was in the sixties to achieve voting rights. And now the effort must begin again. Thank you for connecting the dots, making it clear that the struggle must continue, and thank you for your courageous heart.

Submitted by nboyd at: February 9, 2013
Increasingly, I am daily aware of the injustices they children of color face. Thank you for the article!

Submitted by jimhadden49 at: February 9, 2013
I'm curious about the role of Julius Adams Scott in these campaigns.

Submitted by Barb at: February 9, 2013
I thank you so much for sharing your recollections of these troubled times, both past and present. I look forward to Ms Edelman's message when it comes on-line. I've been following and adding my small donation to the work of the CDF for a number of years. I always found the comparison of the military budget with our commitment to our children to be so valuable as I used in often in my presentations to a variety of audiences. I thank you! Barbara T. Curtis

Submitted by Illse at: February 9, 2013
She is, of course, right on!

Submitted by Ro at: February 8, 2013
What a beautiful recollection and essay.

Submitted by karenelyse at: February 8, 2013
Brilliant, eloquent, and heartfelt. Remembering our history, and honoring it, is part of the battle younger generations often fail to understand. We are blessed to have you, Marian, continuing to fight for our children each and every day.

Submitted by Dwyn Mounger at: February 8, 2013
Thank you, Mrs. Edelman. As a Caucasian Mississippian, born in Jackson, it was my privilege also, while a senior at Belhaven College there, to meet Medger Evers. I had volunteered to write a term paper on Brown vs. Board of Education and, with great fear and trepidation, made my way to his office in the upstairs headquarters of the Mississippi NAACP, which at that time was beside the campus of Jackson State. He was a southern gentleman who welcomed me, made me feel immediately at home (my fear had been that of being spied by hostile fellow whites who might see me arriving there, and so take it out on my family or myself), and gave me pamphlets and booklets that helped me with my research. I believe that there is a real possibility of younger Mississippians, Black and White, bringing Blue Dog, Caucasian and Black Democrats together to take the state away from the Tea Party. That's my hope, anyhow. Thank you again.

Submitted by TeddieTiye at: February 8, 2013
I am always encouraged by Ms. Edelman's manner in which she reminds us all of the importance of REAL humanity and Justice towards each other. It does not begin with our frayed legal system but with each individual. Thank you.

Submitted by Patricia at: February 8, 2013
I was taking my senior English class the summer Mr. Evers was killed. My teacher came in grumbling about the news--she told us he had set it up himself to make himself a martyr and make the state look bad. I may have only been a 16 year old white girl who had never lived outside my hometown, but even then I knew that was just insane. I checked to see what I would need to gain entrance to college, and went home that night and told my parents I would not be going back to that high school in the fall. My inspiration for going to law school was someone you also know--Justice Constance Motley. I didn't know women could be lawyers until I saw her in the paper working for the NAACP in Mississippi. Sometime in the early 60's my father, active in the Episcopal Church in the state, received a letter from Byron de la Beckwith calling on all Episcopalians to exert their influence to fight integration. My father kept the letter, but told us (his children) that Beckwith was a nut and a dangerous man and we should avoid people like him. Even in those harsh days, many in my generation were shocked at the callous treatment meted out by our elders and we vowed that we would be different.

Submitted by Rujul at: February 8, 2013
Fantastic I admire Marian Wright Edelman for creating No child left behind and now I have to admire her even more for her role in the fight for Equality

Submitted by sister at: February 8, 2013
Thank you for reminding us.

Submitted by Sue Smith at: February 8, 2013
Always inspiring...you asked me several years ago why I still do "our work" no answer could be stronger than your memories in these writings. You are my s-hero.

Submitted by Frank at: February 8, 2013
Thanking for your testimony from your life here. I have always looked for your site to give to first because I have witnessed something of the "Cradle to jail" effect. I just passed my 86th birthday so many blessings and nightmares. I say no more children in prison, please.