Medgar and Myrlie Evers exemplify civil rights organizing that combined grassroots strategies with efforts of national organizations to change laws and policies. The Evers established the NAACP office in Jackson, Mississippi in the mid-1950s. Medgar took part in both legal challenges and direct action campaigns. He tirelessly led marches, prayer vigils, voter registration drives and boycotts, and persistently appealed to blacks and whites to work together for a peaceful solution to social problems. Here are some examples of his leadership and hard work.
RCNL Gas Station Boycott
While working as an insurance salesman, Evers became involved in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) under the mentorship of his employer, Dr. T. R. M. Howard. In his first experience as an organizer, Evers spearheaded a boycott of gas stations that refused to let black people use their restrooms. He distributed some 20,000 bumper stickers sporting the slogan “Don’t buy gas where you can’t use the restroom.” This campaign reached middle-class African Americans—those who could afford to own a car and buy gas—a key constituency in the struggle for civil rights. The economic pressure proved successful, as the national chains responded and put pressure on local franchises.
The RCNL provided an incredible training ground for budding civil rights leaders like the Evers. The organization’s annual conference brought nationally-recognized speakers, offered workshops, and inspired its thousands of attendees.
In 1890, Mississippi adopted a new constitution that disenfranchised blacks, using a poll tax and arbitrary constitutional tests, which were assigned subjectively and almost exclusively used against black citizens.
Medgar knew first hand, the bullying and intimidation applied to black Mississippians that dared to exercise their right to vote. He also knew the right to vote and participate in the political process is fundamental to citizenship. He began organizing and advocating for black voter registration in his hometown, then while a student in college. The cause was the bedrock of his career.
In speeches at churches and civic organizations, Evers encouraged people to overcome their fears, to pay their poll taxes as long as they were still required, and to register to vote. To promote voter registration, he distributed bumper stickers and used the black press and radio to spread the word. Evers documented in meticulous detail the many ways that white officials invented to block African American voting in Mississippi, and he shared the information in numerous letters to sympathetic congressmen and lawyers in the US Justice Department, even President Eisenhower. After Congress in 1957 established a Commission on Civil Rights, Evers convinced black Mississippians to testify about the intimidation that whites directed at them when they tried to vote.
When US Assistant Attorney General John Doar came to Mississippi in April 1961 to investigate the denial of voter registration efforts, Medgar quietly directed Doar’s movements.
Black Americans and the Vote | National Archives
Voting Rights | Articles and Essays | Civil Rights History Project | Digital Collections | Library of Congress (loc.gov)
Acting upon a long-time interest in the law and his awareness of NAACP challenges to segregation in higher education, Evers decided in January 1954 to apply to the University of Mississippi Law School. When the whites-only school challenged his application, Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP stepped up to represent him. Evers was denied admission on a technicality, not on merit. The case launched his career with the NAACP and led to further action, and finally success.
Eight years after his own rejection, Evers helped desegregate “Ole Miss” through the admission of James H. Meredith, an Air Force veteran and Mississippi native. Evers brought the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Thurgood Marshall on board, and helped Meredith navigate multiple appeals leading all the way to the US Supreme Court. Meredith had to enter a volatile school setting under protection of federal marshals, but enter he did.
In 1963, Medgar and Myrlie served as lead plaintiffs themselves (on behalf of their children) in a school desegregation suit: Darrell Evers v. Jackson Municipal Separate School District. This was the first such lawsuit filed by parents in Mississippi. The US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi not only ruled against young Evers, it also “respectfully urge[d] a complete reconsideration of the decision in the Brown case.”
School desegregation cases, even when unsuccessful, showed that many states were ignoring national laws and forced the federal government to act.
MDAH Blog: Medgar Evers: The NAACP and School Desegregation – A Sense of Place (ms.gov)
Between 1877 and 1950, some 600 people were lynched in Mississippi. The state’s history was infamous, but more often than not racially motivated crimes were swept under the rug.
Investigating cases of racially motivated beatings, rough treatment by police, and murder was among the most dangerous work that Medgar Evers undertook. He filed complaints, took witness statements, talked with victims’ family members, and most importantly, made sure the stories were told. He distributed press releases, dragged reporters and photographers to crime scenes, and sought to involve the federal government and national media whenever possible. Crimes against black citizens were an unkept secret in Mississippi and Evers needed help from the outside.
In 1955 alone, Evers investigated the murders of Emmett Till, Rev. George Lee, and Lamar Smith. Lee and Smith were both leaders in their communities, active in voter registration. Till was a 14-year-old youth from Chicago, who was kidnapped and lynched while in Mississippi visiting family. Till’s death, which never resulted in any convictions of the two white men accused, became a turning point in civil rights activism, in part because of the gruesome images that caught the nation’s attention. In the last four months of 1956, Evers talked about the case in cities nationwide.
Because of Mississippi’s long history of racial violence, it was difficult to get people to talk, even to the NAACP. Evers used whatever tactics he could, including disguises, to coax out information. Though emotionally exhausting work, revealing a system of bigotry and a lack of criminal justice for black citizens, was essential to change the status quo.
MDAH Blog: Medgar Evers: The NAACP and Investigations – A Sense of Place (ms.gov)
Press and Media
Evers maintained an active speaking schedule, sharing insights from his civil rights work in Mississippi with NAACP branches and other organizations all over the United States.
Naturally, his tireless efforts garnered the attention of the African American press and he was featured in many articles. But he also brought black stories—especially lynchings and violence against black citizens—into the mainstream white media. He wrote press releases and gave quotes to national outlets, channeled through the NAACP headquarters. His efforts cut a hole through the media’s “Cotton Curtain” that hid the harsh realities of life in the South from the rest of the nation. Mississippi’s dominant news station (WLBT) told a one-sided, segregationist perspective. Often, it even refused to air black entertainers. For over five years, Medgar’s repeated petitions to WLBT for air time went denied. Following major protest demonstrations, WLBT finally granted Evers a chance to speak. On May 20, 1963, Evers appeared in homes across the state. He spoke for 17 minutes, appealing for equality and democracy. The broadcast raised his status and notoriety, along with his cause.
Evers’ national celebrity carried well beyond his murder the following month. Even using the word “assassination” rather than “lynching” showed a change in public perception. His funeral and the actions of Myrlie and his family continued to lift the cotton curtain.
MDAH Blog: Medgar Evers: The NAACP and the Media – A Sense of Place (ms.gov)
National Archive’s Prologue magazine article: Changing Channels | National Archives
Library of Congress: Watch an excerpt from a 1963 NBC feature that includes a speech from Evers.
Forming and Leading Leaders
As field secretary, Evers traveled from one end of Mississippi to the other, organizing local NAACP branches and NAACP youth chapters that bit by bit built the foundation for a civil rights movement in Mississippi. Local branches educated people about voting rights and encouraged voter registration, developed local leaders who fought for their rights, and documented economic intimidation of those who tried to vote.
Young people who had grown up in the NAACP youth branches that Evers established in the 1950s and early 1960s, later flowed into the ranks of the youth-oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and fanned out across the state to mobilize a mass civil rights movement.
Evers’s diplomatic sense and tactical vision for keeping the movement united led him to form alliances with other civil rights organizations that pursued different tactics and appealed to different constituencies. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), SNCC, and the NAACP met to create the Congress of Federated Organizations (COFO).
COFO acted as a forum for the various civil rights groups in Mississippi to work together under a single umbrella and to speak with a unified voice to political leaders. Freedom Summer in 1964 was organized under the auspices of COFO.
Direct Action and Civil Disobedience
Inspired by protest strategies that college students engaged, Medgar led a subtle shift at his NAACP office from legal action in courtrooms by adding more public action campaigns.
He became involved in and organized direct-action campaigns such lunch counter sit-ins, beach wade-ins on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, library read-ins, and the economic boycott of white-owned businesses in downtown Jackson (which came to be known as the Jackson Movement). Evers also supported and sheltered activists. He tapped the resources of the NAACP to arrange bail funds and to broker loans for black farmers and business owners who had been denied local bank loans because of their activism.
He marched, he took punches, he was arrested. On the night he was shot, Medgar had been at a mass meeting focused on the direction of the Jackson Movement.
MDAH Blog: Medgar Evers: Direct Action – A Sense of Place (ms.gov)
Smithsonian Magazine article: A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi
Last updated: August 5, 2022