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Civil Rights History: Five of Medgar Evers' Achievements

Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives

Civil Rights History: Five of Medgar Evers' Achievements

Medgar Evers, a civil rights icon gunned down at age 37, lived a life bookended by segregation. From the institutionalized racism of his childhood to the heartbreaking discrimination he experienced at the hospital on his final day – dying of a bullet wound, he was initially refused treatment because of his race – segregation was a defining part of his life. But in between those bookends, he fought for change.

Below, we explore five ways Medgar Evers worked to make the United States a more equal nation.

NAACP Leadership

Evers became involved with the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, while he was still a college student. After graduating, he became an insurance agent but also continued volunteering with the NAACP, organizing new chapters while he traveled his sales route. Soon he was named the first state field secretary for Mississippi, establishing an office in the state capital and embarking on a campaign to raise awareness and almost double statewide membership in the organization. Particularly important to Evers, a young man himself, was persuading Mississippi youth to become involved with the NAACP and civil rights actions. Under his leadership, youth councils of the NAACP began to flourish around the state.

Integrating the University of Mississippi

Soon after Evers got involved with the NAACP, he volunteered to be the first African-American to apply to the University of Mississippi. It can't have been much of a surprise to anyone when his application was rejected. It was 1954, and though Brown v. Board of Education was officially desegregating public schools that same year, Mississippi was still a deeply divided state with leadership uninterested in committing to integration. Seven years later, Evers was part of the team that succeeded in bringing integration to Ole Miss. U.S. Air Force veteran James Meredith approached the NAACP for assistance in applying to the university, and when he traveled to the university to register, Evers was there with him (along with other NAACP officials and a guard force of U.S. Marshals). Though Meredith's registration sparked a riot that required National Guard intervention, he succeeded ultimately and became the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi, thanks in part to Evers' help.

Pursuing Justice for Emmett Till

The 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was a horrifying incident that opened many eyes to the deep injustices taking place in the South. As the state's NAACP leader, Evers joined the struggle to bring Till's killers to justice. The Mississippi chapter opened an investigation, and Evers and his assistants tracked down witnesses who could help pin the murder on the two perpetrators. Though several key witnesses testified, the jury returned a "not guilty" verdict and the killers were acquitted. It was a miscarriage of justice, but it served to further strengthen the resolve of Evers and his co-workers in their fight for civil rights.

Woolworth's Sit-Ins

The sit-in movement at Woolworth's lunch counters began in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, but by 1963, it was spreading throughout the South and had made its way to Jackson, Mississippi. In late May, a group of students from historically black Tougaloo College began their attempts to sit and receive service at the Woolworth's lunch counter on Capitol Street in Jackson. Evers helped organize the sit-ins and offered his support. As the sit-in turned violent, with hundreds of white counterprotesters attacking the students, a general boycott of the downtown business arose. Evers was among the boycotters – he even was arrested for picketing Woolworth's just days before his death.

Biloxi Wade-Ins

As leader of the NAACP's Mississippi field office, Evers became involved with activism all over the state. In Biloxi, the beaches were reserved for whites only, a situation that a group of local black activists sought to change. A trip to the beach got them arrested, and when they began organizing "wade-ins" – in which they challenged the discrimination by bringing large groups of black bathers to the shore – Evers loaned his support and assistance in organizing the protests. The wade-in that became historic was known as "Bloody Sunday," owing to the violence that began after crowds of counterprotesters descended on the beach and began beating the black beachgoers. Fear and terror threatened to derail the movement, but Evers urged protesters to continue fighting, saying, "If we are to receive a beating, let's receive it because we have done something, not because we have done nothing." The protests took place over several years, with the final one occurring two weeks after Evers' death. Protesters placed black flags in the sand in memory of the man who encouraged them to fight for justice. Though the protests ultimately proved successful, five years would pass before the case cleared the courts and Biloxi's beaches opened officially to all.

When Evers was killed, members of the movement mourned – but they also were spurred into further action. The deep injustice of Evers' murder brought the fight into focus and turned the eyes of a nation on Mississippi. It inspired protest songs, too, some of the finest of the decade, from artists including Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. As we remember Medgar Evers, here's a playlist of songs about his inspirational life and tragic death.