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Monochrome portrait of Evers in suit and tie
Medgar Evers as pictured in the St. Paul Recorder, August 11, 1961.

Intern Spotlight: The Legacy of Medgar Evers through the NAACP Records

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This is a guest post by Queenie Don, a 2022 Archives, History and Heritage Advanced Internship Program (AHHA) intern in the Manuscript Division. Queenie received a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz in 2022.

The voice of Medgar Evers, and his legacy as a civil rights activist, emerges powerfully from the many boxes of correspondence and reports found in the Records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This post highlights several accounts from the collection, focusing especially on previously unseen items found in the recently acquired “Mississippi Papers” series in Part X of the NAACP Records, to celebrate Medgar Evers’s impact on the organization and nation at large. The Mississippi Papers provide a historical account of the civil rights movement in Mississippi from the 1960s through the 1990s. The series documents the activities of local NAACP branches in the state and includes material from other notable individuals such as Mississippi field director Charles Evers, Medgar’s brother, and Mississippi State Conference president Aaron Henry. Currently being processed, the Mississippi Papers will be available to researchers later this year.

Born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925, Evers was one of six children born to Jesse and James Evers.[1] In his youth, Evers witnessed his family and community struggle in the Jim Crow-era South. Evers would dedicate much of his life to changing his beloved Mississippi, joining older brother Charles in a vow “that we would resist until death the shackles that bound us and our people… that he and I would fight to free you, the people of Mississippi.”[2] That concern was also evident in a 1963 letter to the editor of The Clarion Ledger, a newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, in which Evers wrote, “as long as Mississippi remains the most segregated state in the Union, it will stay at the bottom… to the detriment of its citizens, black and white alike.”[3]

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and attending Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, Evers met and married Myrlie Beasley, now known as Myrlie Evers-Williams, and together they had three children.[4] Evers then joined the NAACP and helped build the organization’s presence in Mississippi, becoming its first state field secretary in 1954. In a memorandum dated that year, NAACP deputy executive director Gloster Current described Evers as “not only qualified, but courageous and impressive. With his business experience and interest in our work, I am convinced that he will be the type of worker that we need in Mississippi.”[5]

Evers’s work with the NAACP consisted of efforts to end racial violence, desegregate higher education and public services, and establish voting rights.[6] He also worked to investigate and publicize instances of gross cruelty and injustice toward Black Americans, including the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. His pivotal role in launching the investigation into Till’s case is evident in a letter sent two days after Till’s killing. Conveying the preliminary details to Gloster Current, Evers wrote that Till was “forced from his home at Money, Leflore County, Mississippi… [and] as of today has not been found.”[7] The following day, Till was found dead in the Tallahatchie River, and Evers’s efforts to publicize the murder helped make it a significant, high-profile case that outraged the nation.

Medgar Evers’s efforts for desegregation included activism within higher education. After being rejected from the University of Mississippi Law School himself, Evers helped James Meredith enroll there as an undergraduate in 1962 as the school’s first Black student.[8] In a 1961 address during a mass protest meeting, Evers insisted that, “we are making gains in our struggle for first class citizenship, but it cannot be overemphasized that we have only begun this fight and that there must be many sacrifices.”[9] Evers also helped organize the Jackson Movement, a direct action campaign during the early 1960s. An NBC News report carried one of his speeches, urging Mississippians to boycott discriminatory downtown businesses.[10]

Monochrome photo of Meredith in suit, with three marshals following chose behind
James Meredith, second from right, as pictured in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), October 1, 1962.

Throughout his time working with the NAACP, Evers was frequently targeted by white supremacists. On June 12, 1963, he was murdered just outside his home.

Evers’s contributions to freedom and equal rights made him, as NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins wrote, “more than just an opponent… in life he was a constant threat to the system.”[11] It would take 31 years for his killer, Byron de La Beckwith, to be tried and found guilty, owing in part to the dedication and resilience of Myrlie Evers-Williams to achieve justice for her late husband.[12]

Monochrome photo of Evers-Williams speaking at podium
Myrlie Evers-Williams, as pictured in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), August 26, 1963.

Medgar Evers’s legacy has also continued through the work of Myrlie Evers-Williams. In a statement following her husband’s death, Evers-Williams expressed her “strong determination to try to take up where he left off.”[13] Myrlie Evers-Williams joined the NAACP board of directors and was elected chair in 1995.[14] Afterward, Evers-Williams established the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, and published on Medgar Evers’s life and death, and her own experiences as a woman struggling against racial and gender barriers.

Within the pages of the NAACP Records, Medgar Evers emerges as a dedicated and beloved civil rights leader whose life and work continues through efforts to root out systemic racism and white supremacy. His foundational role in this mission can be observed in NAACP state president Aaron Henry’s “Ode to Medgar Evers”:

“Tell me, tell me, why was Medgar Evers born.
Somebody had to hold out hands, somebody had to
Take a stand, somebody had to develop the land, and
That’s why Medgar Evers was born.”[15]

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[1] The Civil Rights Research and Documentation Project, Afro-American Studies Program—The University of Mississippi, “Remembering Medgar Evers…For a New Generation,” Heritage Publications in cooperation with the Mississippi Network for Black History and Heritage, 1988, unprocessed material, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Charles Evers, speech, June 21, 1963, unprocessed material, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[3] Medgar Evers to T. M. Hederman, Jr., 1963, unprocessed material, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] “Remembering Medgar Evers…For a New Generation.”

[5] Gloster Current to Roy Wilkins, November 19, 1954, Box II:A585, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] “Remembering Medgar Evers…For a New Generation.”

[7] Medgar Evers to Gloster Current, August 30, 1955, unprocessed material, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] “Medgar Evers.” NAACP. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/medgar-evers.

[9] Medgar Evers, speech, April 20, 1961, unprocessed material, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] The American Revolution of ’63, NBC News, September 2, 1963, video, 02:48, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

[11] Roy Wilkins, speech, June 15, 1963, Box III:A114, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] “Myrlie Evers-Williams.” NAACP. Accessed November 1, 2022. https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/civil-rights-leaders/myrlie-evers-williams.

[13] “Remembering Medgar Evers…For a New Generation.”

[14] “Myrlie Evers-Williams.”

[15] Aaron Henry, Ode to Medgar Evers, June 12, 1963, unprocessed material, NAACP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Comments

  1. Thank you for highlighting the work of Medgar Evers, Queenie, and for offering a preview of this important addition to the NAACP records!

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