He had planned to vote. But in 1946, a 21-year-old Medgar Evers left the courthouse in Decatur, Mississippi, without casting a ballot. Twenty armed white men, some of whom had been his childhood friends, had learned of his plans to vote and turned up to threaten him. Evers feared for his life. “I made up my mind that it would not be like that again,” he later wrote.
It wasn’t the first or last time Evers would experience bigotry or racial terror. During his career as a civil rights activist and NAACP leader, Evers became the target of those who wanted to uphold the South’s racist status quo. On June 12,1963, those threats became reality when he was murdered by a white supremacist in the driveway of his home.
Evers was born in segregated Decatur on July 2, 1925. As a child, he resented the deference he was expected to show to white people, and after serving in the U.S. Army and earning multiple medals during World War II, Evers returned in 1945 to a nation that denied him his citizenship rights at the polls.
After graduating from college in 1952, Evers took a job as an insurance agent in Mississippi. He organized new chapters of the NAACP as he traveled across the state.
In 1954, a few months before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Evers volunteered to challenge segregation in higher education and applied to the University of Mississippi School of Law. He was rejected on a technicality, but his willingness to risk harassment and threats for racial justice caught the eye of national NAACP leadership; he was soon hired as the organization’s first field secretary in Mississippi.
The position catapulted him to what his wife Myrlie later called “No. 1 on the Mississippi ‘to-kill’ list.” Evers garnered national attention for organizing demonstrations and boycotts and for securing legal assistance for James Meredith, a black man whose 1962 attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi was met with riots and state resistance. (Related: Mississippi tries to heal wounds with a civil rights museum—but can it own up to its past?)
Mississippi was home to the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist group devoted to preserving segregation in the state’s schools, and its members subjected Evers to intimidation, harassment, threats, and even murder attempts. His family was threatened, as well; in May 1963, his home was firebombed and subsequently saved by his wife, who put out the blaze with a garden hose. Myrlie and Medgar Evers trained their three children in what to do if they heard gunfire: crawl to the bathroom on the floor, then hide in the bathtub.
The grisly drill became reality in the early morning hours of June 12, 1963, when Evers was shot in the back in his driveway mere hours after President John F. Kennedy had delivered an address announcing the landmark civil rights legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Evers died in an all-white hospital a few hours later; his family had to beg for him to be admitted after he was initially turned away because of his race. He was just 37.
Evers’ murder was met with widespread protests. Kennedy received the widowed Myrlie at the White House, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General, attended Evers’ military burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The fury over Evers’ murder fueled the March on Washington in August 1963, and his death is widely considered a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson—who had assumed the office after Kennedy’s assassination—signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Today, a Naval ammunition ship and the international airport in Jackson, Mississippi, bear Evers’ name. His home is a national monument.
Evers’ murder fueled a national push for racial justice, but it would take another 30 years, and three trials, to convict his killer. Although the FBI traced the owner of a sniper rifle left at the Evers home to Citizens’ Council member Byron De La Beckwith, the first two trials were tainted by biased jury selection and lying witnesses. Each resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial.
In 1989, evidence emerged that a secret state agency called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission—founded with an aim to obstruct civil rights activists—had helped Beckwith’s defense screen out jurors who might be sympathetic to civil rights. A new trial was ordered and, in 1994, Medgar Evers’ killer was sentenced to life in prison; he died in 2001.
In a 2014 interview with National Geographic, Evers’ widow Myrlie—who became a prominent activist and protector of her slain husband’s legacy—described her journey from bitterness to hope.
“I don’t think you ever completely erase the negative feelings of hatred and prejudice and racism. That’s a part of the human makeup,” she said in the interview. “Medgar said repeatedly in his speeches, and certainly during the last year of his life, ‘This is the land of my birth. I believe in what is possible for the state of Mississippi. I believe that it will be one of the best places to live in America when we have solved the race problem.’
“I said to him,” she continued, “‘You are out of your mind.’ I’m a native Mississippian. I was born in Vicksburg. ‘Things will never change in Mississippi. You are wasting your time. And I fear for your life.’ He would look at me with an uncomfortable stare, and he would say: ‘You will see.’”