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New Book Sheds Light on Contributions of Slain Civil Rights Leader


More than 40 years after his murder, Americans know more about how Medgar Evers died than the contributions he made to the American civil rights movement. His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, hopes to change that with a new book. The Autobiography of Medgar Evers is a detailed account of her husband's life, as reconstructed through his personal and professional papers.

On June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers was shot dead in the driveway of his house as he returned home from a civil rights rally. He was 37 years old. The assassin, a white supremacist named Byron de la Beckwith, was charged with the crime and brought to trial -- twice. Both times, the all-white juries found him innocent. But in 1994, when new evidence linked him directly to Evers' murder, a new trial was called, and Beckwith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

"I would pick up papers, newspapers, magazines and publications about civil rights," Myrlie Evers-Williams says, "and I would never see Medgar's name mentioned. Or I would see it mentioned up to today as 'Medgar Evers, civil rights activist, assassinated June 12, 1963.' That's it. So being Medgar's wife, the mother of his children, his widow, I thought, 'this cannot be.'"

A lifelong activist herself, Ms. Evers-Williams was the first woman to serve as Chairman of the National Board of the NAACP (National Association of Colored People), the nation's oldest civil rights group. She says she wrote her book because she was dismayed that more attention had been paid to the way her husband died than to the notable achievements of his life.

Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran and gifted student, felt the sting of racism early on in his home state of Mississippi -- then one of the most racially segregated states in the union. It began with the rejection of Mr. Evers' application to the University of Mississippi law school in 1954. He contacted the NAACP in Washington, D.C., about filing a lawsuit against the school.

But the civil rights group had another idea: they hired Medgar Evers to be the head of the first NAACP field office in the state of Mississippi. In his new job, Mr. Evers waged an aggressive - and dangerous - campaign to end racial segregation and curb race-motivated violence in the state.

Myrlie Evers-Williams says in the beginning, she was reluctant to support him.

"Not because I didn't believe in what he was doing, or because I didn't believe in him or was proud of him, but because I was frightened," she says, adding, "I didn't want to lose him. And we knew eventually that would happen."

Ms. Evers-Williams' new book chronicles how Medgar Evers worked tirelessly to integrate schools, restaurants and other public facilities and to organize voter registration drives. It also describes how the Evers family endured many threats and violent acts, including a firebombing of their house. In spite of this hostility, Ms. Evers-Williams says, her husband often spoke of the love he felt for his home state and his country.

"I used to say to him, 'How can you say you love this god-forsaken place?'" she recalls. "And he would patiently say, 'Because it is home. And if Mississippi can become a better place, so can every other place in the nation.'"

A few weeks before his murder, Medgar Evers delivered a radio address about the NAACP's plans to put an end to government-sanctioned racial oppression -- widely known as Jim Crow.

"The demonstration will continue," he said. "We will have a mass meeting tonight and after the mass meeting we will be demonstrating even further on tomorrow. So that this will give us an impetus to move ahead rather than to slow down. We intend to completely eradicate Jim Crow here in Jackson, Mississippi."

Myrlie Evers-Williams says she hopes her book, The Autobiography of Medgar Evers will stir new interest in Mr. Evers and others whose work helped drive the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

"As you read about the wishes, the dreams, the vision, and Medgar's ability to strategize -- who once felt that we had to handle racism and prejudice with an 'eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth' -- you will see how he later changed." She says the book should bring together "a composite of this man," and demonstrate the strategies that he and others set "that could be part of any sound movement."

Myrlie Evers-Williams credits the re-opening of the Medgar Evers murder case in 1994 with setting the legal precedent for re-opening other unresolved civil rights cases decades after their initial trials. She says the conviction of her husband's murderer in 1994 restored her faith in the fairness of the American judicial system.

And while racism is not completely gone from Mississippi today, the state's residents find many ways to mark their progress toward civil rights. And this year, in a timely and enduring tribute to the legacy of Medgar Evers, the city of Jackson, Mississippi, renamed its busy airline hub the Jackson-Evers International airport.

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