Life of a civil rights activist

July 10, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun Staff

Civil Rights

The Autobiography of Medgar Evers

Edited by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable. Basic Civitas Books. 352 pages.

In the preface, Myrlie Evers-Williams describes her dismay that today's young people rarely recognize the name of her slain husband, with some even mistaking him for a Negro League baseball player. She makes clear that this exhaustive volume chronicling the life and death of her civil rights leader husband is intended to set the record straight.

The Autobiography of Medgar Evers etches a rightful place in civil rights history for a man who was content to toil in the shadows while other giants of the movement, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, worked the spotlight. Although modest and soft-spoken, Evers succeeded in mobilizing massive voter registration drives and boycotts, and in drawing attention to some of the era's injustices.

Through an extensive presentation of documents, Evers-Williams and historian Manning Marable have produced what they call an autobiography. But the book is not a story of Evers' life, written by Evers himself. Rather, through an annotated compilation of his speeches, letters and other original writings, the editors have drawn a portrait of an unassuming man dedicated to the civil rights movement. In Evers' 1963 speech, "I Speak as a Native Mississippian," his devotion to his home state, despite its notorious racial violence, shines through. Like so many of the speeches and letters, it affirms Evers' leadership, which other histories often gloss over. The editors explain that, while Evers was not known as a master orator, his speeches resonated with the foot soldiers of the movement and many who came later.

But the book does not provide the complete human picture of this impressive young life cut short. (Evers was killed in June 1963, a month before his 38th birthday.) We learn little about Evers relationship with his wife and children, other than their fears for his safety. Aside from passing references about his upbringing and faith, little of his inner life emerges.

The book's collection of photos -- some never before published -- includes Evers' high school football team, his wedding day and a snapshot of a near-nude Evers showing off his physique. They offer a glimpse of the man behind the movement, but reveal little of his actual personality.

The book is less a Sunday afternoon read than a research tool for avid pupils of civil rights history. The reader will find exhaustive logistical details in Ever's letters to NAACP leaders, but little illumination into how Evers himself feels about the daily struggles for civil rights.

That may be what the editors intended. In their words their book is, "a hero's life and legacy revealed through his writings, letters and speeches." While not an emotionally moving narrative, in depicting Evers' day-to-day work, the editors convey the courage that the fight for freedom entailed.

Evers details the brutality across Mississippi during his work as the state field director of the NAACP. Through a punishing schedule, clocking 78,000 miles in two years of crisscrossing the state, Evers achieves key victories. He was instrumental in helping James Meredith enroll in the University of Mississippi Law School and in bringing national attention to the brutal killing of Emmett Till.

Evers at times expresses disenchantment. White racism was only part of the struggle. Evers was constantly trying to convince blacks to join the NAACP. He respected the poorest blacks, those willing to risk their lives and turn over their last dollars for the movement. Meanwhile, blacks who did not face intimidation at the polls, but were reluctant to vote or join the movement, frustrated him. Evers dispels the myth that leaders always worked in concert with one another. He was sometimes at odds with NAACP leaders, who discouraged his support for King's activism.

The book is also a testament to Evers-Williams, whose persistence helped lead to the conviction of Byron De La Beckwith 30 years after he murdered Evers in front of their home in 1963.

Modern history will view Evers-Williams as a giant of the civil rights movement in her own right, in part for the way she has reminded the world that her husband is worthy of remembrance.

Kelly Brewington covers race and civil rights for The Sun.

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