Medgar Evers’ legacy of courage and justice sparks calls for posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom

Medgar Evers, the first Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (NAACP)
FILE - Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), poses for a photo, Aug. 9, 1955, in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo, File)

This story was updated on April 24, 2024 at 5:00 p.m.

Last year marked 60 years since key moments in the Civil Rights Movement: the 1963 March on Washington, the bombing of four Black girls at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the Children’s Crusade in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham letter, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the less-recognized assassination of Medgar Wiley Evers.

Evers’s sacrifices and activism contributed to the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights and inspired others to pursue justice and equality in all facets of American society. Now, politicians are urging President Joe Biden to recognize Evers and his sacrifice by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In October 2023, the Mississippi congressional delegation sent a letter to Joe Biden urging him to grant the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Medgar Evers posthumously. 

Republican U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, and U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson, Trent Kelly, Michael Guest and Mike Ezell wrote:

“Mr. Evers dedicated his life to the defense of civil rights in Mississippi and the United States. His sacrifice inspires Americans to this day, and he furthered the cause of freedom for all humankind.”

Black history scholars like Georgia State University professor Dr. Akinyele Umoja agree Evers’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement are long overdue for recognition.

During the era of Jim Crow, when Umoja was only a child, African Americans, including his family traveling from California, faced discrimination at gas stations in the South, where Blacks couldn’t use the same restrooms as white people.

The Regional Council of Negro Leadership boycotted this practice and advocated for voter registration and the election of Black representatives in Mississippi, all initiatives that Evers was deeply involved in.

As a prominent civil rights leader, Evers embraced the principles and goals of the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, which sought to end segregation in public schools and dismantle institutionalized racism. Prior to Evers becoming the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi in 1954, attempts to establish local NAACP chapters were often met with violent opposition, preventing their formation until he was officially employed.

On June 12, 1963, two months before King galvanized a crowd of thousands with his “I Have a Dream” speech, Evers was gunned down by a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith.

It took decades to convict De La Beckwith for murdering Evers. In 1990, new information emerged which Evers’s widow, the local community and the press used to demand a retrial. De La Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison in 1994.

Downtown Atlanta’s historic Sweet Auburn district houses the first public research library in the Southeast dedicated to African American culture and history, featuring the pioneering NAACP’s former office spaces and resources on Evers, the organization’s inaugural field secretary.

A Georgia State University student takes a closer look at the currency at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. (Ruben Lebron)

Remembering Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers, despite his significant contributions to civil rights and his partnership with figures like Martin Luther King Jr., often remains marginalized in American historical narratives.

Raised in the Jim Crow South, Evers pursued education, married Myrlie Louise Beasley, and became active in the Civil Rights Movement, notably in investigating Emmett Till’s lynching.

His assassination underscored the violence of the era.

Scholars like Minrose Clayton Gwin and Umoja emphasize the need to recognize collective efforts beyond singular heroes like King.

Gwin has authored several texts about the Civil Rights Movement, including “Remembering Medgar Evers,” published by the University of Georgia Press in 2013.

“We don’t tend to think plurally about so many people who lived and died for the cause of civil rights in this country,” said Gwin, Kenan Eminent Professor Emerita of English at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former reporter for United Press International, who covered the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.

Umoja’s comment concurred, “They used to talk about Abraham Lincoln, not talking about how you had 186,000 Black men who fought in the Civil War. And as W.E.B. Dubois talked about in Black Reconstruction, you had hundreds of thousands of Black people who escaped from the plantation to undermine the Confederate economy during that time.” 

Gwin said this is because of what some scholars have called America’s “consensus memory.” That is when we tend to pick one singular hero, like Dr. King, to explain history.

Gwin aims to elevate Evers’s legacy through her writing and teaching, highlighting his pivotal role in Mississippi’s challenging civil rights landscape. Despite this, many Americans remain unaware of Evers’s significance, as recounted by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Gwin’s experiences with students.

“Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar Evers’s widow, told me she went to a campus to give a talk. And she was just walking around campus, and she encountered some students, and she said, um, do you know who Medgar Evers was? And one of the students says, was he a basketball player?” said Gwin.

“When I taught my course in civil rights, literature, and song at the University of North Carolina,  I would go in and ask students: How many of you know who Medgar Evers is? And usually – I had about 35 students – I would say maybe three of them would hold up their hands.”

Though today, an airport, college, and several buildings have been named after the civil rights leader, Gwin’s work underscores the ongoing need to broaden the collective understanding of civil rights history and acknowledge the multifaceted contributions of its unsung heroes.

Mississippi Civil Rights Movement: The Biloxi Wade-ins

“Mississippi during this period was in a state of apartheid. And, I think all over the state, in a broader sense, the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement was one of the bloodiest and hardest of all the civil rights activism to achieve. And Medgar Evers was a huge part of that effort,” said Gwin. 

She also centered on Evers’s less-known contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, such as the Biloxi Wade-ins.  

In the late 50s and 60s, wealthy, white private homeowners on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast in towns like Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pass Christian built homes along the coast, taking control of the beach and making sure that its waters remained segregated.

Dr. Gilbert Mason, a local Black physician, organized three large-scale protests to desegregate the beaches, called wade-ins. Black Mississippians simply wading into the water – like the old Negro spiritual – became an act of resistance that led to mass violence.

Evers supported the planning of the Biloxi Wade-ins and wrote a letter to Mason that said, “If we are to receive a beating, let’s receive it because we have done something, not because we have done nothing.”

“These people were terribly beaten, and the police just stood by and let it happen. There were several people killed, and many of these African American citizens of the area of Mississippi were taken to jail,” recounted Gwin.

She observed, “I think we think of sit-ins as what most people did during the Civil Rights Movement, which is true. But these wade-ins, which started in 1959 and went on till 1963, were three major events.”

The third and final wade-in occurred two weeks after Evers’s assassination.

Umoja added, “Medgar would be assassinated in 1963 and really known as one of the martyrs of the movement for freedom.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pallbearer at Evers’s funeral. Within five years, King, President Kennedy and Malcolm X would all be assassinated as well.

Myrlie Evers: A love story that awakened America and Civil Rights her-story

Medgar’s legacy of courage and justice is not his alone; his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, has made invaluable contributions to the Civil Rights Movement of her own.

Throughout their relationship, she became deeply entrenched in Medgar’s work, not only as his wife but also as his full-time secretary in the Jackson NAACP office.

Together, they spent years fighting to desegregate the University of Mississippi, organizing picket lines and boycotts of discriminatory businesses. They faced repeated threats to their lives for their courageous work, including the 1962 firebombing of their home where they lived with their young children. 

Evers-Williams remained active in the NAACP even after Medgar’s assassination, eventually being appointed to the board and rising to chairman in 1995.

“Where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance, and that the visions of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.”

Myrlie Evers-Williams, 2013 Presidential Inaugural Invocation

She and Medgar Evers are the topic of “Medgar and Myrlie: Medgar Evers and the Love Story That Awakened America” by New York Times bestselling author and MSNBC host Joy Reid.

“I have never met a person who loves a person like Myrlie Evers-Williams – and God bless her other late husband, Mr. Williams – how she loves Medgar Evers,” said Reid. “She is still madly in love with this man as if he is still alive.”

When discussing her reasoning for writing the book, Reid said, “One of the things I feel is missing from books about the Civil Rights era is number one, the women.” Reid said, “She was literally his cook, his maid, his typist… so it was a joint project – this civil rights thing – which she didn’t even want to do!”

Reid also mentioned that activist and author James Baldwin referred to Medgar Evers as a member of the civil rights “triumvirate,” an informal recognition of the undoubted connection between King and Malcolm X.  

Calls for Presidential Medal of Freedom recognition

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor “presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

“I think President Biden should absolutely give Medgar Wiley Evers the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” proclaimed Gwin.

“We have to have truth. We have to be able to teach the truth. And if we don’t teach the truth, then we’re lying to our children, and that just creates more problems,” said Umoja.

Gwin concluded, “It’s important for these kinds of awards to go to people who not only are deserving of them – our most illustrious citizens of this country – but also, [to] people who perhaps have not been given the recognition that some others have.”

The Biden administration “has no immediate word on when or if Biden would respond” to the request to grant the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Evers posthumously.