Love in an Unjust World
Joy Reid’s new book about civil rights martyr Medgar Evers and his still-living wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, is a tribute to the transformative power of courage.
Medgar and Myrlie
Medgar Evers and the Love Story That Awakened America
by Joy-Ann Reid
Mariner, 352 pp., $30
IF YOU PICK UP JOY-ANN REID’S NEW BOOK, which everyone should do, I suggest you turn first to page 301 to read the acknowledgements, which the MSNBC host in her inimitable do-it-my-way style calls “Many thanks.” There she expresses her gratitude to a large number of helpers and sources of inspiration, three of whom stand out.
First, of course, there is Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was murdered in front of his family on June 12, 1963, setting off a fit of political violence that would over the next few years also claim the lives of two Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here’s Reid’s closing nod to Medgar: “Thank you for fighting for our freedom, for loving your family, your country, your state, and your people unapologetically, and for showing us how to do the same.”
Then there’s his wife, Myrlie, who is still alive, the last surviving member of a trio of brave widows (also including Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King) thrust into the spotlight by acts of hate. Myrlie used this spotlight to continue Medgar’s cause, eventually serving as chair of the NAACP, the civil rights organization Medgar had worked for and clashed with. Reid calls Myrlie “the best of Black women, of all women, of civil rights leaders, and of icons. Thank you for your voice—for its rich melody and resonant strength. You inspire me and make me want to make more of my own life and contributions to the world.”
And then there’s Reid’s thank you to Prudence Gibbs Gilbert, the book’s dedicatee, whom Reid knows as Auntie Dolly: “She is the person who loved romantically with the greatest fearlessness and ferocity of any of the women I know. And like Miss Myrlie, she endured the loss of great love twice. And in my siblings’ darkest hour, when we lost our beloved mom, her big sister, she opened her home to three young people in desperate need of the shelter of love.”
Reid calls her book a “love story,” and that’s just what it is. It’s a celebration of a marriage that was strained to the breaking point by Medgar’s commitment to his work and the constant danger that this created for him and his family, which grew to include three children. At one point Myrlie told him, “You love your work more than you do me or your children.” He replied, “It is because of you and my children that I’m doing what I do.” At no point did the couple stop loving each other, although Myrlie and Medgar briefly considered separating. As Myrlie told Reid, “What do you do when you’re in love? You stay.”
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But Medgar and Myrlie is a love story in another sense: It embraces Reid’s love for ordinary people who demonstrate uncommon courage, people who insist on respect in the face of bigotry, and who won’t run from a fight. While Reid is perhaps MSNBC’s most acerbic host—she once referred to Clarence Thomas as “Uncle Clarence”—she’s also the one I’d still most like to have as a guest in my home when the TV is off. Her enthusiasms and disaffections enliven the book, which draws from extensive interviews as well as a trove of archival materials and prior accounts. (Myrlie co-wrote two memoirs, For Us, the Living in 1967 and Watch Me Fly in 1999, and she also co-edited a collection of her late husband’s writings and speeches.)
Reid, the author of several previous books including The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story, pulls it all together to create indelible new profiles in courage.
MEDGAR WILEY EVERS WAS BORN in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, in a blended family that included his older brother, Charles, who became a civil rights leader in his own right and outlived Medgar by more than five decades. Their father, James, taught them to stand their ground, saying, “If anyone ever kicks you, you kick hell out of him.” The family kept guns in the home, and was prepared to use them.
In 1934, the brothers bravely attended a speech given by U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo, a fervent segregationist. They were the only two black people in the audience. Bilbo pointed them out from the stage: “You see those two little n-----s sitting down here? If you don’t keep them in their place, then someday they’ll be in Washington trying to represent you.” Medgar whispered to his brother that he liked this idea.
As a child, Medgar watched white friends fall away when they got old enough to care about the color of his skin. One of them, a boy with whom he’d been close when they were children, later called him the n-word in front of a new group of teenage white friends. Evers later mused, “I guess at that moment, I realized my status in Mississippi.”
When the brothers were young, a friend of their father’s was lynched; for months afterward, as they walked to their segregated school, they had to pass the man’s bloody clothes in the street, left as a reminder of that status. As Charles would later write in his own memoir, “White hatred dogged your heels like a shadow.” In school they were taught, as Reid puts it, that black people “had contributed nothing to the United States or to the world, other than what they could contribute with their backs or on them.”
Medgar served in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed in Europe. He came to deeply admire leaders including Jomo Kenyatta, a Kenyan activist who fought for his country’s independence from English colonial rule, and W.E.B. Du Bois, the legendary American scholar-activist. In France, Evers dated a white woman, openly and without anyone getting bent out of shape about it. After his honorable discharge, on the bus ride back to his hometown, he was asked to move to the back of the bus. He refused, and was beaten “within an inch of my life.” He told the story often, with pride: Having put his life on the line for his country, he wasn’t about to accept being treated as a second-class citizen.
Myrlie Louise Beasley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1933 and raised by her grandmother and aunt. They encouraged her piano playing, saying she would one day be good enough to play Carnegie Hall. She became an outstanding pianist. As a child in Mississippi, she remembers always being “prepared for the surprise attack.” She and Medgar met on her first day of classes at Alcorn State University in 1950. He was then a junior, attending college on the G.I. Bill.
It was love at first sight. They married on Christmas Eve, 1951.
Medgar became an officer in the new Mississippi chapter of the NAACP in 1954, charged with garnering contributions and registering voters, but drawn always to resistance. One of his first major involvements was seeking justice for Emmett Till, killed in 1955 at age 14 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. “Medgar,” writes Reid, “began the painstaking work of convincing terrorized Blacks in the Delta not only to come forward and tell what they knew but also to testify in the upcoming trial.”
This was Medgar’s driving engine—seeking to provide an example of courage for others to follow. From the start, it put him in extreme danger. His name was on a Klan “kill list.” Phoned-in threats were a common occurrence. Myrlie told Reid, “I knew that if he continued to pursue civil rights justice and equality, and certainly at that time, that his life would be taken from him. And I could not imagine life without Medgar.”
Medgar was a committed and creative advocate. In 1956, he sent a telegram to President Dwight Eisenhower, who had invited a Russian delegation to the United States to observe its free and fair elections. Medgar urged the president to send them to “the majority of Mississippi counties where no Negroes are permitted to register and vote in our great democracy.” (Eisenhower did not take him up on the suggestion.) Medgar organized boycotts of businesses and events that treated black people as lessers, as second-class citizens, an approach that proved successful because participants could bring pressure to bear on businesses without putting their own lives at risk.
In 1960, Medgar’s friend Clyde Kennard, who’d had the audacity to apply for admission to Mississippi Southern College and to sue over it when denied, was charged with stealing $25 worth of chicken feed that police had planted on his farm. After a one-day trial and ten minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. Medgar attended the trial and was quoted in the press calling it a “mockery to Judicial Justice.” He was then fined $100 and sentenced to thirty days in jail for contempt of court for criticizing the proceeding. (The Mississippi Supreme Court later overturned Medgar’s conviction. Kennard was released after serving more than two years behind bars.)
Medgar was also deeply involved with James Meredith’s historic battle to attend Ole Miss. He was present for the phone call when Meredith became angered by and hung up on an NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall; Medgar talked Meredith down. Medgar had his own problems with the NAACP, which was not comfortable with his embrace of direct action protests of the sort that led to people being locked up. At one point, Roy Wilkins, the NAACP executive secretary, purportedly chewed out Medgar, saying, “Who do you think you are? Another Martin Luther King? There’s too much Martin Luther King in this country now.”
On June 11, 1963, in response to mounting protests, President John F. Kennedy gave an address in which he pledged the federal government to the cause of civil rights in education, accommodations, and the right to vote. It was, Reid observes, “a full-scale war on the Southern way of life, and an embrace, from the White House, of the ‘first-class citizenship’ Medgar had been touting.” That night, Medgar didn’t get home until after midnight. His kids heard his car pull into the driveway. They also heard the shot.
Myrlie opened the door to find her husband lying in a pool of blood. She screamed, and dropped to her knees. He died at the hospital shortly after. The next chapter of her life was about to begin. Reid, in her book, titles this chapter “How to Be a Civil Rights Widow.”
ON THE EVENING OF THE DAY Medgar was assassinated at age 37, a mass meeting was held at the Pearl Street Church in Jackson, Mississippi. About 500 people were present. Mrylie addressed the gathering:
I come to you tonight with a broken heart. I am left without my husband, and my children without a father, but I am left with the strong determination to try to take up where he left off. And I come to make a plea that all of you here and those who are not here will, by his death, be able to draw some of his strength, some of his courage, and some of his determination to finish this fight. Nothing can bring Medgar back, but the cause can live on. . . . We cannot let his death be in vain.
Myrlie had been afraid to take the stage, but she did so anyway. She tapped into her capacity to be “a wall of fire,” to turn her anger into action. “I could not afford to be weak,” she said later. “I could not afford to give up.”
Medgar’s funeral in Jackson, Mississippi, drew thousands, including Martin Luther King, Wilkins, and Meredith, then finishing his studies at Ole Miss. His burial at Arlington National Cemetery drew thousands more. After the service, Myrlie and the couple’s children met with President Kennedy at the White House. He gave her a draft copy of the federal legislation he had been talking about the day before Medgar’s murder. It would pass about a year later as the Civil Rights Act, after Kennedy’s own assassination.
Medgar’s killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was a member of the state’s White Citizens’ Council and had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. He had reportedly been asking around before the shooting “Where that Evans n----r lived that is the NAACP worker,” not even getting Evers’s name right. His first two trials ended with (all-white) hung juries; that these were not outright acquittals was remarkable. During the first trial, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett stopped by the courtroom to shake Beckwith’s hand. It was not until 1994 that Beckwith was convicted, thanks in part to the reporting of Jerry Mitchell and Myrlie’s insistence on justice.
Myrlie spoke often of Medgar’s life and legacy, saying early on that she hoped that his “supreme sacrifice . . . has shocked the complacent into active participation in achieving the goals for which he died.” In 1976, she married Walter Williams, and became Myrlie Evers-Williams. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress and held a number of administrative positions before being elected board chair of the NAACP in 1995. She would go on to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s second inaugural, in January 2013. This was shortly after Myrlie saw one of her greatest dreams come true: She played piano at Carnegie Hall, at age 79.
For a book teeming with examples of horrifying racial injustice, Medgar and Myrlie manages to be surprisingly optimistic. It provides some of what we need in this perilous moment—reasons to be inspired, and stories to be inspired by. With democracy itself at risk, courage is more important than ever. We need models to guide the way. People like Medgar and Myrlie and Auntie Dolly.