The Courage and Vision of Medgar Evers

Marian Wright Edelman | 2/13/2013, 2:19 p.m.

"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, N.C, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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 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.

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 such as 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.