by iampunha | 6/12/2008 08:00:00 AM
He might have been a lawyer, but the law school he applied to rejected him because he was black.

With his business administration degree, he might have ended up an executive, but he was black. And black executives are still pretty rare. So he sold insurance and became active in the civil rights movement.

He served in World War II, earning the rank of sergeant upon his honorable discharge — two years before the Army was desegregated by executive order. Who knows what he might have done, what future he might have seen for himself serving our country if not for the racism he undoubtedly faced from men who were supposed to be on his side?

Today, as I think about having a black man as president, and I venture into the mental territory that says this is not that big of a surprise, I must defend that within myself, must remind myself of the legacy we still live, of the legacy Americans were killed for opposing, of the legacy we are still fighting.

That legacy shot a man in the back on June 12, 1963. And then that legacy bragged about it. That legacy lived free for 31 years before justice came calling for the man who had murdered Medgar Evers.




Some portions of this diary contain divisive language. Reader discretion is advised.

For the 1180 Jews of Berezhany, killed on this date in 1943 by Nazis, and for a world that misses and remembers them and their slain comrades.

For Nelson Mandela, sentenced on this date in 1964 to life in prison for violent opposition to apartheid practices in South Africa.

For Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, murdered on this date in 1994.



"[My father] was on his deathbed in the hospital in Union [Mississippi]," Evers related in [The Martyrs: Sixteen Who Gave Their Lives for Racial Justice]. "The Negro ward was in the basement and it was terribly stuffy. My Daddy was dying slowly, in the basement of a hospital and at one point I just had to walk outside so I wouldn't burst. On that very night a Negro had fought with a white man in Union and a white mob had shot the Negro in the leg. The police brought the Negro to the hospital but the mob was outside the hospital, armed with pistols and rifles, yelling for the Negro. I walked out into the middle of it. I just stood there and everything was too much for me.... It seemed that this would never change. It was that way for my Daddy, it was that way for me, and it looked as though it would be that way for my children. I was so mad I just stood there trembling and tears rolled down my cheeks."
-Medgar Evers


In Decatur [Mississippi] where there were 900 white voters and no Negroes even registered, I went with [my brother] Charles, and four others [in 1946] to register at the clerk's office. I never found out until later that they visited my parents nightly after that. First, it was the whites and then their Negro message bearers. And the word was always the same: "Tell your sons to take their names off the books. Don't show up at the courthouse voting day." Then, the night before the election, Bilbo came to town and harangued the crowd in the square. "The best way to keep a nigger from the polls on election day," he told them, "is to visit him the night before." And they visited us. My brother came from Alcorn College to vote the next day. I laid off from work. The six of us gathered at my house and we walked to the polls. I'll never forget it. Not a Negro was on the streets, and when we got to the courthouse, the clerk said he wanted to talk with us. When we got into his office, some fifteen or twenty armed white men surged in behind us, men I had grown up with, had played with. We split up and went home. Around town Negroes said we had been whipped, beaten up and run out of town. Well, in a way we were whipped, I guess, but I made up my mind then that it would not be like that again—at least not for me.
-The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, p. 120

There is sometimes a tendency, when writing on emotional topics, to save the reader and the writer considerable trouble by setting a tone early on, and understandably so, that is fairly safe and fairly sad. This prepares the audience for a eulogy of sorts, it means there will be no rude awakenings by way of tone shift, by way of emotional or intellectual challenge, and it is quite fitting in many cases. I have used it myself on more than one occasion.

But it is safe.

It is unremarkable.

It does not dare.



Medgar Evers should not have had to settle for activism and selling insurance to poor black people. Not in a country with millionaires, not in a booming economy, not as a veteran.

Medgar Evers should not have had reason to worry about his father's medical care in a country working on sending a man to the moon.

Medgar Evers should not have had to wait 31 years for his murderer to finally face justice.

As you read this, we are 45 years removed, chronologically, from the cowardice of shooting a man in the back as he steps out of his car.

But we are only a few years removed from lawmakers refusing to co-sponsor a resolution apologizing for the government's lack of intervention in lynchings from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th.

We are eight years removed from a push poll against John McCain inviting South Carolina voters to wonder if he had a child by a woman not his wife. A black child.

And we are living racism directed at Barack Obama, who has got to be fuming at the cowardice, the gall employed by men who say something ridiculous, then back down quickly and assume nobody will take them to task.

But we are also living in a country in which many Republicans must, every election cycle and every day, work with the notion that they will have to secure votes first to cancel out the black vote and only then to actually work toward being elected.

We are living in a country in which a man of mixed-race heritage is pulling in Americans of almost every background to vote for him.

We are living in a country in which it's OK to think, based on the last few years, that it isn't that outlandish that a black man is on track to be president less than 50 years after poll taxes and literacy tests were declared unconstitutional, and the black vote skyrocketed.

We are standing at the door to the next age, a door that is ajar, and we must decide how much time to spend talking about what we want to happen in the future and how much we have fought, how many people and how many years we have lost so we could step away from the last door we opened, now 143 years ago.



Do not look for a philosophical resolution here. That would be too easy. This piece is about more than Medgar Evers' death, and this election is about more than Barack Obama's presidency. This is about looking where we have been. And it is not happy. And I am not going to give you easy answers, not going to just let other people talk for me, not going to find their stories for you and pretend that's a fitting tribute to a man who knew he would be killed for doing what was right, and who did it even so.



I cannot pay sufficient tribute to Medgar Evers, but I can honor him by recognizing that not only is this fight not over, it isn't so simple as to say it will be in my lifetime. In many ways part of the continued fight is looking for places the '60s status quo has been hiding from us, hoping we wouldn't find wrongs yet to be righted.

This fight isn't over.

It isn't over because we still have people saying a hurricane was God's retribution for something. And we still have people dumping billions of dollars into another country while our own citizens are being poisoned.

It isn't over because we still have people making veiled racist statements and saying a candidate is only winning because he is black.

But it also isn't over because 10 years ago, a black man bound for stardom on a full athletic scholarship to Notre Dame couldn't find a date for the prom because the fathers of all the girls he asked vetoed his entreaties. They were all white.

It isn't over because 90 percent of the families I've gotten to know when volunteering at after-school programs for at-risk youth have been black.

It isn't over because two of the editors I worked with in college — of the dozens I worked with — were black.

And it isn't going to be over until we talk about "the grandchild of a copy editor who worked with only two black people at his college newspaper" — because it's so rare to work with such little diversity.

It isn't going to be over until it's no longer remarkable for a nonwhite female to be in a position of power or even applying for an executive job.

It isn't going to be over until the marginalized demographics declare it is.



Medgar Evers was killed for the impossibly uppity crime of having fought for his country in Europe and discovering he had another war to fight on his home continent.

He was killed because the whites couldn't scare him away from overcoming.

He was killed not because America was not ready for him but because Americans didn't ever want to have to be ready for him.

He was killed for trying to cancel out the racist vote.



He would have been so proud of Barack.

He would have been such a voice for civil rights in this era.

He would have been such a unifying and empowering congressman.



Earlier I told you, "Do not look for a philosophical resolution here. That would be too easy."

Resolution comes in November. Five months.

We have five months to secure this nation's legacy for the next four years. Five months to work toward knowing the next 48 months won't be more of the same. Five months to convince people that their voices will be heard, their ideas will be respected, their stories will be told.

Five months to make a statement, as a country, that November will be the end of the year and the end of the status quo and that January will be a new year and a new America.

In November, we find out if Dr. King's legacy and message, his will to help even as he was harmed, shines brightly enough that racism is exposed and exterminated.

In November, we find out if we have done enough to honor the legacy and spirit of so many who came before us.

In November, we find out if we have done enough since we had to stop talking about what Medgar Evers did and had to start talking about what he would have done.

In November, we find out how far we have come from this:


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