Cohen: America Finally Honors Civil Rights Leader Medgar Evers

“The life he chose to live and the risks he took to do the right thing are a reminder of the history he made and our duty to uphold it.”

Article content

PORTLAND, Maine — The Presidential Medal of the Freedom It is the United States’ highest civilian honor. Since John F. Kennedy established the award in 1963, each president has recognized an “especially meritorious contribution” to the nation.

In a country that easily reveres and celebrates, relatively few have received the medal. It is not like Britain’s Honors List or France’s Legion of Honor, with thousands of people decorated annually. Or the Order of Canada, awarded to dozens of Canadians each year.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Article content

Over the past six decades, about 650 Americans have received the medal. There is no specific number of winners: Barack Obama awarded 117 medals in eight years; Donald Trump awarded 24 medals in four years. (Trump delighted in recognizing enthusiastic allies like broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and representatives Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. Curiously, he honored Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley posthumously, as if they had been forgotten.)

Which brings us to the most recent honorees. Among them are politicians Al Gore, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn and Elizabeth Dole; talk show host Phil Donahue; swimmer Katie Ledecky; and Michelle Yeoh, the Asian-American actress.

The most important one, however, is not well known. When I heard his name, I gasped.

Was Medgar Wiley Evers. Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary in Mississippi from 1954 to 1963. Medgar Evers, a decorated soldier who fought for freedom abroad and found it not at home, who sought justice in the most violent state in the Union.

Medgar Evers, who dressed as a farmhand to look for witnesses to testify at the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers in 1955; Medgar Evers, who helped James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962; Medgar Evers, who led election campaigns, anti-segregation marches, and the Capitol Street boycott in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963.

Advertisement 3

Article content

Medgar Evers, who was shot in the driveway of his Guynes Street home in front of his wife and children, hours after President Kennedy gave a lyrical speech introducing the landmark Civil Rights Act.

Evers lived in constant danger. Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, slain titans of the movement to whom he is compared, he had no entourage. He worked alone, touring the Mississippi Delta in his powerful Chevrolet, one step ahead of the Ku Klux Klan, who wanted him dead.

He lived under a veil of threats, including phone calls to his home, but refused to join the millions of people in the Great Migration north, fleeing terror.

“The life he chose to live and the risks he took to do the right thing are a reminder of the history he made and our duty to maintain it,” the medal citation reads. “In a life all too short, Medgar Evers’ legacy sheds a ray of light in our quest to redeem the soul of our nation.”

Yet through it all, Evers has remained in the dark. Other members of the movement have been honored, including the three brave young civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi in June 1964, dramatized in “Mississippi Burning.” Evers was not.

Advertisement 4

Article content

Some couldn’t say his name properly or explain what he did. (He is called an “attorney” in the summons. He was not one.)

His widow, Myrlie Evers, 91, has made his legacy her mission. She was disappointed that Medgar was not honored by President Barack Obama and angered when Donald Trump addressed her, in public, by her first name. She told me.

It took years of lobbying. Bennie Thompson, who represents Jackson in Congress, was a tireless advocate. He nominated Evers for the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015 and, more recently, lobbied Mississippi’s congressional delegation to appeal to Biden to honor Evers.

Now Biden has done it. Evers’ daughter, Reena, accepted the posthumous award at the White House last Friday. She was eight years old when her father was murdered and she remembers it vividly. His family has spent their entire lives preserving his memory: first, bringing his killer to justice in 1994, following two mistrials, and now, ensuring that his legacy is recognized.

It has taken 61 years, but finally, belatedly and appropriately, America has honored the heroic life of its native son, Medgar Wiley Evers.

Andrew Cohen He is a journalist, commentator and author of Two days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 hours that made history.

Recommended by Editorial

Article content

Leave a Comment