History Wars World War II

This Civil Rights legend was a veteran of World War II France

For some of us, Medgar Evers sounds like nothing at all. But for students of Civil Rights history, he evokes feelings of awe.
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Medgar Evers grave, Arlington National Cemetery, 2007.

For some of us, Medgar Evers sounds like just another name. But for students of Civil Rights history, the Black Mississippian evokes feelings of awe, respect and victory. Evers led an attempt by Black veterans to vote in 1946. He helped push the integration of a public law school after Brown v. Board of Education. And he conducted investigations of violence against Black Americans, and organized voter registration drives.

Of course, that all sounds like pretty dangerous work for a Black man in Mississippi during the 1940s to 1960s. Tragically, Evers was martyred by an assassin on June 12, 1963, 19 years after he landed in France in World War II.

Medgar Evers joins the Army

Evers grew up in segregated Mississippi and ran into overtly racist acts on a regular basis. He witnessed the lynching of a family friend and saw the bloody clothes left behind on a nearby fence as a threat for a year. The young man had to pass them every day on his way to and from school.

He attended an underfunded, segregated school where violence and threats preventing interracial dating were common.

Still, in 1943, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army Reserve Corps to serve America in World War II. The Army allowed few Black men to serve in combat units, and so Evers deployed with the 325th Port Company.

He came ashore in France soon after D-Day and served in three transportation companies as part of the Red Ball Express. Black soldiers manned and operated the Red Ball Express, keeping supplies flowing to the frontline units.

As Black soldiers saw how France largely welcomed their assistance and presence, especially as compared to how they were treated back home, many Black soldiers decided to stay in France after the fighting was over. But Evers focused on making it back to the American South, telling his brother Charles, another Black soldier, “When we get out of the Army, we’re going to straighten this thing out!”

Evers pushed forward with the Allied advance, eventually serving in Germany as the Nazis collapsed.

After Victory in Europe, Evers was true to his word. He left the Army in 1946 with an honorable discharge and returned to Mississippi.

After the War, a Civil rights legend

In Mississippi, Evers quickly earned his high school diploma and then enrolled at Alcorn College in Mississippi. But the racial fight at home immediately found him. When Evers and his brother, Charles, attempted to vote in 1946.

White voters yelled racial slurs at the pair and polling officials refused to take their vote. The following July, the brothers tried again with four other Black veterans. Local men threatened the six veterans with shotguns to prevent them from voting.

After earning a business administration degree, he moved to another town and started selling insurance.

On his business trips, he saw the high poverty of Black communities in the area and decided to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

By this point, Evers was married and starting a family. He was well aware of the dangers of resisting white supremacy.

But after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he applied to the University of Mississippi law school as part of a larger attempt to see if the university would follow the court decision. The college refused to admit the well-qualified man.

He became the NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary. In this role, he kept pushing for the university to accept Black students, organized voter registration drives and investigated violent crimes against Black people. He led a boycott of gas stations that didn’t allow Black customers to use the restroom.

Despite a severe backlash against his work, including many threats of violence, Medgar loved his work and home. He wrote in 1958:

It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don’t choose to live anywhere else. … There is room here for my children to play and grow and become good citizens if the white man will let them.

Medgar Evers, as quoted in NPR

And in 1962, the University of Mississippi accepted its first Black student, James Meredith.

Statue behind the Medgar Evers Boulevard Library in Jackson, Mississippi. (Public domain)

The threats coming hard and fast against Medgar Evers

As Evers became more and more successful, the enemies of racial equality pushed back harder and harder. Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, was also a Civil Rights activist and remembered the death threats against Medgar and the fear.

“Medgar became No. 1 on the Mississippi to-kill list,” his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, told NPR in 2013. “And we never knew from one day to the next what would happen. I lived in fear of losing him. He lived constantly aware that he could be killed at any time.”

On June 11, 1963, Medgar Evers attended a meeting of the NAACP as President John F. Kennedy gave an influential speech on the need to secure civil rights for all Americans. When he returned home just after midnight on June 12, a fellow veteran lined up his rifle sights on the 37-year-old Black leader.

Byron De La Beckwith, a Marine veteran, fired a single shot from an Enfield Rifle. He held the rifle too loosely and the scope too close to his eye, resulting in the recoil bruising his eye. He dropped his weapon and fled the scene.

But his shot pierced Evers through his back. The Evers Family rushed outside to see their husband and father dying on the steps.

Even in death, Medgar Evers’s spirit continues

The Black community mourned Evers’s death, and 3,000 members of the public attended his funeral. His brother Charles took over his role in the NAACP and continued his work.

In death, Medgar Evers became an even more important symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

Beckwith dodged justice twice in the 1960s as all-white juries failed to reach a verdict in two trials, despite fingerprints, the murder weapon, his clear motivation as an overt white supremacist, and multiple witnesses who heard him ask where Evers lived.

In 1990, a new grand jury issued a new indictment against Beckwith and a petit jury convicted him in 1994. A key new piece of evidence helped return the verdict: Witnesses recounted him bragging about the killing of Medgar Evers. He was sentenced to life in prison and died behind bars in 2001.