On June 12, 1963, Mississippi Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson.
Evers was unloading a stack of “Jim Crow Must Go” t-shirts in his driveway just after midnight when Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, shot him in the back. Two days before, Evers had learned he was on the KKK hit list, and earlier that evening Pres. Kennedy had addressed the nation on the confrontation over the integration of the University of Alabama. Evers may have known his time was coming, but as the first death by assassination of a public figure, his set in motion a string of events that would finally lead to change.
Evers lived in Jackson with his family and had worked tirelessly to document reports of racism and racial crimes as the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. His wife, Myrlie Evers Williams, said about his work: “He investigated, filed complaints, issued angry denunciations, literally dragged reporters to the scenes of crimes, fought back with press releases.”
His assassination was the inspiration for Eudora Welty’s famous story “Where is the Voice Coming From,” in which she writes from the perspective of his killer. Evers is also championed in a new book by Minrose Gwin “Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing The Long Civil Rights Movement.” Gwin felt that Evers’ life of service and courage had been left on the periphery of Civil Rights history. She examines the powerful body of work that has emerged in response to his life and death, including Welty’s story, and examines local news accounts about him, contemporary hip hop protest songs, the haunting poems of Frank X. Walker and contemporary fiction like “The Help” and her own novel “The Queen of Palmyra.”
We remember Evers today with the poem below and suggestion that anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and quiet bravery of Medgar Evers pick up Gwin’s book. Poet Laureate of Kentucky, Walker’s new book of poems “Turn Me Loose The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” is also a powerful tribute.
“Mississippi Courage: A Lighthouse to the World
for Medgar, Fannie Lou, and Ms. Devine
by C. Liegh McInnis
Courage is a lighthouse guiding ships to salvation.
Courage is a fire that burns down the dead weeds of racism
that rise to suffocate the voices of liberty.
Courage is an antibiotic that kills the bacteria of hatred.
Courage was the nucleus of the Mississippi Trinity.
Three lamps full of freedom oil that shined
the path to the dirt and gravel roads of liberation:
an insurance salesman, a sharecropper, and a teacher.
Three instructors of liberation, teaching that
righteous knees only bow before God and that
the children of God have an unyielding, organic duty
to protect the meek like umbrellas shielding us
from the acid showers of colonialism or overcoats
shielding us from the frozen winds of prejudice.
Three bucking broncos, railing against
pale cowboys who lurk in the dark of the night
armed with the silver bullets of white supremacy.
Three lambs of justice who boldly walked into
the snake pit of the South and the lion’s den of America
to snatch their freedom from Ross “Nebuchadnezzar” Barnett,
Pharaoh Bilbo, and his side-winding, salamandering scribes,
the Jackson Daily News.
The insurance salesman, the sharecropper,
and the teacher bore the cross of change.
They were the fertile soil in which we planted our seeds of hope,
as they petitioned us to invest the collateral of our talents
into the mutual fund of the movement.
That’s why we must be tired of paper-tiger intellectuals
and playboy revolutionaries who care more about their
Cadillac payments than tilling the soil of ebony education
as they are standing on the backs and trampling the fruits
of Medgar, Fannie Lou, and Ms. Annie Devine.
These three midwifed and nurtured the germination
of the movement, which caused a rippling of
flowers and trees sprouting through
the winter of racism into the spring of transformation.
Like Shaka they were the pounding
tom-tom heart of a militant movement,
like Jesus they came to heal the sick, and like Mohammed
they laid the blueprint for their people.
Still everyday people fighting for everyday concerns.
Speaking volumes with their actions, this trinity shook
the fibers of the universe.
Through intellectual guerrilla warfare with the spirit of
Jomo Kenyatta, they showed that leaders can’t teach people
to stand as tall as mighty magnolia trees if they are
weeping willows bowing on their knees to the winds of wrongdoers;
they embraced the sword of justice and the fires of protest
becoming ministers for justice and preachers of the gospel of freedom,
teaching us to be the engine of organizations
rather than be driven or plowed over by them.
With little possessions, they fought for the dispossessed,
each one crying 900,000 jubilee tears for 900,000 of Wright and Walker’s citizens
at the mercy of mis-educated teachers and chicken eating preachers,
all the while refusing to fight the forest fire of evil with evil,
believing love to be the only antidote for hate—
for when held to the light of Truth courage
is the mirrored reflection of love, and no greater love than a man
who would lay down his chivalric cashmere coat of life for another
so that we may walk unblemished over the cesspool of struggle—
his payment to be beaten, kicked, sprayed, spit on, spied on, lied on, bombed, and tuned out by his own for a few crumbs of token positions and jus’ enough money to move cross the tracks into the homes that pale people abandoned to preserve the marmalade of Mississippi tradition.
In the blood-stained name of emancipation, equality, and liberty
the thick sweet potato aroma of their lingering legacy demands
that we heed the call to explode this corrupt cocoon
into a Capital city of concrete citizens.
So, [i] don’t know if [i]’m going to heaven or hell,
but wherever [i]’m going, [i]’m going for Mississippi.
[i]’m going for Mississippi.
C. Liegh McInnis was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and is an instructor of English at Jackson State University. He is also the publisher and editor of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, author of seven books, including four collections of poetry, one collection of short fiction (Scripts: Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi) and one work of literary criticism (The Lyrics of Prince: A Literary Look at a Creative, Musical Poet, Philosopher, and Storyteller). He was the 2012 first runner-up of the Amiri Baraka/Sonia Sanchez Poetry Award sponsored by North Carolina State A&T, and his work has appeared in Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Sable, New Delta Review, The Black World Today, In Motion Magazine, MultiCultural Review, A Deeper Shade, New Laurel Review, ChickenBones, Brick Street Press Anthology, The Oxford American, Journal of Ethnic American Literature and Red Ochre Lit. In January of 2009, along with eight other poets, he was invited by the NAACP to read poetry in Washington, DC, for the Inaugural Poetry Reading celebrating the election of Pres. Barack Obama.