On June 12, 1963, just one day after President John F. Kennedy gave his landmark televised speech in support of Civil Rights, activist Medgar Evers pulled into the driveway of his house in Jackson, Mississippi, back home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers. He got out of the car, carrying T-shirts stamped with the phrase “Jim Crow Must Go.” Suddenly, Evers was hit by a bullet in the back. He died less than an hour later.
This week, as Anne Branigin reports for the Root, Evers’ Jackson house became a National Monument as part of a public lands bill signed by President Trump. The home has a complex legacy; it is both the site of a tragedy, where a Civil Rights crusader was assassinated in cold blood, and the family residence that Evers shared with his wife, Myrlie, and their three children.
“It will always be the home that Medgar Evers and I lived, loved and reared our children in,” Myrlie Evers-Williams, a Civil Rights pioneer in her own right who turns 86 on Sunday, tells Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion Ledger. But she says that whenever she visits the property, “memories of the night [of the assassination] come flooding back into my entire being.”
After Evers was killed and his family moved away, the three-bedroom stood empty for many years. In 1993, the Evers family gifted the property to the historically black Tougaloo College, and tours became available by appointment. In 2016, the National Park Service named the Medgar Evers House Museum a national historic landmark. With the signing of the new bill, the federal government will take over the site, and experts who work there hope the change will enable the museum to make some important upgrades. Minnie White Watson, curator of the museum, tells WBUR’s Peter O'Dowd that the National Park Service can afford “to do things that possibly we could never afford to do,” such as installing a parking lot and restrooms.
Born in Decatur, Mississippi, in 1925, Evers came of age in the segregated South. According to the NAACP, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, fighting on the beaches of Normandy. His status as a veteran did little to protect him from racial violence back at home; when he and his friends tried to vote in a local election, for instance, they were driven away at gunpoint.
In 1954, Evers applied to law school at the University of Mississippi. The institution was segregated at the time, and his application was rejected. But the incident brought him in league with the NAACP, which made Evers the center of a campaign to desegregate the university. Not long after, he became the NAACP’s first field officer in Mississippi; he led boycotts against racial inequality, organized voter registration drives and investigated acts of violence against African-Americans.
One of those acts of violence was the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955. His public investigation of the case made him a target—as did his appearance on a local television station, during which he explained the goals of the state’s Civil Rights demonstrations. In late May 1963, a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the carport of his house. Days later, he narrowly escaped being run over by a car when he stepped out of the NAACP offices.
On that fateful day in June 1963, Evers was murdered by Byron De La Beckwith, a fertilizer salesman and member of the Ku Klux Klan. Two trials failed to convict Beckwith in the year following the assassination, due to deadlocked juries. The emergence of new evidence led to another trial, decades later, in 1994. This time, Beckwith was found guilty of the murder. He died in prison in 2001.
Myrlie Evers-Williams tells Mitchell of the Clarion Ledger that she is happy their family home will endure as a “living memorial” to her first husband, who paid the ultimate sacrifice in his fight for Civil Rights.
“I hope,” she says, “thousands and thousands of people will be touched by his work for justice, equality and freedom.”