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Medgar Evers Honored by Bill Clinton, Others

James Wright | 6/5/2013, 8 p.m. | Updated on 6/12/2013, 3 p.m.
A former U.S. president, the attorney general of the United States, a governor of Mississippi, members of the U.S. Congress and scores of guests honored the life and work of the late civil rights leader Medgar Evers at the Arlington National Cemetery during a wreath-laying ceremony sponsored by the NAACP. (Courtesy of NAACP)

A former U.S. president, the attorney general of the United States, a governor of Mississippi, members of the U.S. Congress and scores of guests honored the life and work of the late civil rights leader Medgar Evers at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on June 5 at a wreath-laying ceremony sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Myrlie Evers-Williams, Evers’ wife and a former chairwoman of the board of the NAACP, the organization's president, Benjamin Jealous, as well as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Gov. Phil Bryant (R-Miss.) were among those who spoke about the meaning of Evers' life. Former President Bill Clinton said that Evers, who was assassinated in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963 by a white supremacist, is more than just an historic symbol for the civil rights struggle.

"We must avoid the temptation to confuse the memory with the meaning of Medgar Evers' life," said Clinton, 66.

He said that Evers looked for ways for people to work and live together in harmony instead of one group dominating another. Clinton noted that the year Evers was killed – 1963 –has a special meaning in 20th century history.

"Nineteen-sixty three was an amazing year in the course of our country becoming a more perfect union," he said. "Medgar Evers was the first assassination victim and a few months later, Dr. King gave the greatest political speech of the century a few miles from here. Later that year, [President John] Kennedy was assassinated."

He noted that in Jackson, there are 12 different monuments to Evers and there are landmarks throughout the country that are dedicated to the civil rights icon as well.

"You can get in an airplane at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport and fly to New York to attend Medgar Evers College," Clinton said. "We should also praise Myrlie Evers-Williams, for she kept alive the meaning of Medgar Evers' life."

Medgar Evers was a civil rights activist in a dangerous time in a particularly dangerous state. The late Lawrence Guyot, a fellow Mississippian who spent many years in the state as a young man fighting the system of white supremacy, often described the state in these terms: “There was the U.S., the South and then Mississippi.” In 1954, Evers became Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP. His responsibilities included helping to organize boycotts and establish new NAACP chapters around the state. His civil rights leadership caused white supremacists to target him and he endured threats and increasing hostility. On June 12, 1963, Evers, 37, was shot in the back and killed in the driveway of his home by Byron de la Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

A portion of the ceremony focused on his career in the military. Evers fought in World War II in the 1940s, traveling to Europe to help man the Red Ball Express, a famous supply line for the Allied troops. Many of the speakers noted that when Evers returned to Mississippi after serving his country, he was not accorded the rights and privileges of a full citizen.