Should I vote? Humm, ask Medgar!

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Medgar Wiley Evers

Here’s a truism if ever there was one: people sacrificed their lives for the right for others to vote. Hold that axiom for now.  In the words of Paul Harvey, “in a moment, the rest of the story”.

You don’t need a reminder that the 2024 Presidential election is less than six months from now. Which takes us to Joy-Ann Reid’s best-selling, “Medgar & Myrlie,” the powerful story of the late Mississippi voter rights activist Medgar Evers and his wife Myrlie and the ultimate price they paid for the right of African Americans to vote.

But first, here’s my proposition – one that’s as far-fetched as the zillion to one chance that yours truly will one day become president – that we make reading Reid’s book a prerequisite to voting in November. Okay, calm down, don’t worry, it ain’t gonna happen.

But I am here to tell you that all it takes is to read the first 100 plus pages of the book to get an understanding of why voting is so important. If the fact that Medgar was assassinated for fighting to get Black folks the right to vote is not enough motivation, well I don’t know what will.

Okay, exactly who was Edgar Evers and why is it so important to connect him with the forthcoming election? Well, if your interest in the life of Mr. Evers is low, or nonexistent, then perhaps the following snapshot of his background will suffice.

Medgar Wiley Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, a decorated U.S. Army combat veteran and served in World War II.

Following the 1954 ruling of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, Evers challenged segregation in Mississippi, including the segregated University of Mississippi. That unleashed constant death threats that hounded him for the rest of his life.

Medgar enrolled at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1952 and married his classmate Myrlie Beasley. They had three children. He applied to the University of Mississippi Law School. After being rejected, he volunteered to help the NAACP try to integrate the university with a lawsuit. Thurgood Marshall served as his attorney. While he failed to gain admission to the law school, Evers managed to raise his profile with the NAACP.

Evers’ public investigations into the 1955 lynching of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi and his vocal support of other cases had made him a prominent Black leader and this a target for violence. In May 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home. In June 1963, Evers was nearly run down by a car after he came out of the NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi. A man of extraordinary courage, Edgar braced himself for the certainty of violence, and even the possibility of death.

 “As long as God gives me strength to work and try to make things real for my children, I’m going to work for it – even if it means making the ultimate sacrifice,” he once said.

In the morning of June 12, 1963, just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s nationally televised Civil Rights address, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car, he was struck in the back by a bullet fired by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of a group formed in 1954 in Mississippi to resist the integration of schools and civil rights activism. 

Initially thrown to the ground by the impact of the shot, Evers rose and staggered 30 feet before collapsing outside his front door. His wife was the first to find him. He died shortly after arriving at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. His last words were, “Turn me loose. “

Although all-white juries failed to reach verdicts in the first two trials of De La Beckwith in the 1960s, he was convicted over 30 years later in 1994 based on new evidence.

Evers became the first martyr to the 1960s civil rights movement and his death was a turning point for many in the struggle for equality, infusing other civil rights leaders with renewed determination to continue their struggle despite the violent threats being made against them.

Medgar’s incredible sense of history coupled with his great skills in organizing were instrumental in successful boycotts against Jackson businesses that discriminated against African Americans. His unyielding support of student activists from Tougaloo College (Tougaloo Nine – Wikipedia) put him at odds with NAACP headquarters who preferred a narrow focus on voter registration and less on direct action to force change.

On June 28, 1992, the city of Jackson, Mississippi erected a statue in honor of Evers. In 2004, the Jackson City Council changed the name of the city’s airport to Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Evers’ honor.

Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers, became a noted activist in her own right, eventually serving as national chairperson of the NAACP. She founded the Medgar Evers Institute in 1998, with the initial goal of preserving and advancing the legacy of her husband’s life’s work.

In June 2013, a statue of Evers was erected at his alma mater, Alcorn State University, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Evers’ death.  In 2024, Evers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden.

In the end, as Paul Harvey always said, “Now you know ….the rest of the story.”

Now……. will I see you at a voting station in November? Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, Blackmarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.