JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI —
People across the United States are remembering an icon of the American civil rights movement five decades after his racially motivated murder in Mississippi. The assassination of Medgar Evers galvanized support for the civil rights movement, including the right to vote for African Americans, especially in southern states.
Fifty years ago Medgar Evers was fighting for equal rights for African Americans in Mississippi. Myrlie Evers worked by her husband's side. She says his goal was to wipe out discrimination.
“He was a man on a mission, a mission to make his country everything he knew it could be. And certainly to have conditions improve dramatically for his own people,” she said.
Myrlie Evers-Williams says Medgar believed that racial barriers would fall only if blacks were allowed to vote - especially in communities where they outnumbered whites.
“Medgar was determined, having served in the armed services and returning home and being unable to vote or be a first class citizen, then he was going to have to do something about it," said Evers-Williams.
As a field secretary for the NAACP [The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], the largest civil rights organization, Evers and others like Reverend Willie Blue registered thousands of blacks in a matter of months.
"We went out into the cotton fields and the byways and highways and everywhere that we could get people to vote and they marked their ballots," said Blue.
Evers also was instrumental in helping to racially integrate the University of Mississippi and leading boycotts against white merchants so they would allow blacks to eat at their lunch counters. Hollis Watkins was recruited by Evers to join the struggle.
"He was committed to the cause. You knew he was not, as we would say, a 'fly-by-night' [unreliable] person. But he was going to be there and would be there for the long haul. That made you feel good," said Watkins.
"In 1963 Jackson, Mississippi was the hotbed of mass demonstrations," said Frankye Adams Johnson, who demonstrated with Medgar Evers. She said his work made him the target of death threats from white racists.
"Not to say he was not concerned for his life, but he had a passion for what he did that kind of went beyond selfishness," said Johnson.
On the evening of June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers returned to his home. He got out of the car and was killed by an assassin's bullet.
Evers was shot by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist. It took 31 years and two trials to convict him. Evers-Williams remembers her husband saying "you can kill a man but you can't kill an idea."
“He believed it to the death. He sacrificed his life and he did it willingly, not that he wanted to die, but he knew that it would take everything that he could give and others could give to prompt America to accept all of its citizens as just that, full class citizens in America," said Evers-Williams.
Now, 50 years after his death, Evers-Williams says her husband is still inspiring people to continue to work for justice and equality.