"This Is the Island! Here You Will Die!" (Diaspora: USA)

Article excerpt

Nick Hordern on the life and death of the great African-American civil rights leader, Medgar Evers (photo below), who was assassinated in June 1963. Hordern went to California to interview Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the assassination.

"Tonight a black [American] knows from his radio and television about the free nations in Africa, and knows that a Conga native can be a locomotive engineer, but here in Jackson, Mississippi, he cannot even drive a truck." Within a month of Medgar Evers' television address, the civil rights leader was shot in the back and killed in the driveway of his home. The assailant was Byron de la Beckwith, a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan.

June 2003 marked the 40th anniversary of Evers' assassination. He was 37. June also marked the 40th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's arrival on Robben Island, where, coinciding almost to the day that Evers was gunned down, a brutal Afrikaner prison officer told Mandela: "This is the island! Here you will die!"

When, on his release, Mandela spoke to a crowd in New York's Yankee Stadium, he recounted the unbreakable umbilical cord that connected black South Africans and black Americans "for we are together the children of Africa. There is a kinship between the two that has been inspired by such great Americans as W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and Martin Luther King Jr". He might have added, "and Medgar Evers", King's precursor.

A week before he was killed, Medgar Evers had said: "If I die, it will be in a good cause. I've been lighting for America just as much as the soldiers in Vietnam."

Evers was born in Decatur, Mississippi, where he saw a family friend lynched when he was a small boy. He left high school to volunteer for the US Army in World War II and participated in the Normandy invasion.

After graduating from Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1950, Evers sold insurance in rural Mississippi. He was horrified by the poverty he found among black families in his state and in 1952, he joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). As a field worker for the NAACP, Evers travelled through his home state encouraging poor African-Americans to register to vote and recruiting them into the civil rights movement.

He was instrumental in getting witnesses and evidence for the 1955 Emmet Till murder case. Till, a Chicago teenager was abducted at gunpoint from his Mississippi home, savagely beaten, and murdered. In 1959, Mack Charles Parker was seized from a Mississippi jail by a group of armed white men. Ten days later, Parker's mutilated body was fished out of a river in Louisiana.

In 1961, Herbert Lee, a young SNCC worker, was murdered by a white Mississippi state representative on an open highway during a traffic dispute. Lee was unarmed. There were dozens of other blacks and civil rights workers murdered in the 1950s and 60s. Their killers are known or suspected, and they still walk around free.

At great personal risk, Evers would don a disguise as a sharecropper in the Delta, gathering evidence and witnesses for court cases. The Highways slogan "Stay alive in '55!" meant one thing to white car users and another to blacks, like Evers.

He fought for voting rights and school integration, and he organised the first economic boycott of businesses that practised racial discrimination. He spoke frankly about the racist brutality he witnessed and, despite death threats, he devoted his life's work to eliminating injustices in the USA.

"I do not believe in violence either by whites or Negroes," Evers said in June 1963. "That is why I am working tirelessly with the NAACP in a peaceful legal struggle for justice. I don't ever intend to live elsewhere. But I'm determined we can gain some equality and be accepted as human beings with dignity."

But towards the end, he was in a state of siege in his home at 2332 Guynes Street, North Jackson, Mississippi's capital. …