ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday praised slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, saying that the black activist's vision and leadership helped make it possible for Holder and President Barack Obama to rise to the positions they now hold.
During a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Evers' death, Holder said that Evers should be remembered as a pioneer who helped to lay the foundation for much of the nation's racial progress over the last five decades.
"In the eye of history he stands with Garvey, with Wilkins, with Malcolm and with King," Holder said, referring to black activists Marcus Garvey, Roy Wilkins, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
"We pledge that we will never forget the man, the foundation that he laid, nor his broad shoulders that made possible the election of the first African-American president and the selection of the first African-American attorney general," Holder said.
Former President Bill Clinton and Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, joined Holder for a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Evers was buried.
In December 1954, Evers became the NAACP's first field officer in Mississippi, organizing voter registration efforts and leading public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was murdered in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman.
Evers was 37 when he was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson, Miss., on June 12, 1963. The man accused of his murder, Byron De La Beckwith, was freed in 1964 after two trials ended with deadlocked all-white juries. In 1994, he was retried and found guilty of murder. He died in prison in 2001.
Clinton called Evers the first assassination victim of the civil rights struggle. The former president said it was a time when African-Americans could fight and die in combat overseas but, in many Southern states, couldn't vote or run for office.
"The next time you hear people complaining around Washington about what a rough business democracy is, we might do well to remember what it was like 50 years ago and the sacrifices that were made," he said. "When you get angry about what you see and frustrated in Syria and the aftermath of the Arab Spring, remember 1963 when we lost a genuine soldier, citizen, hero, and left his wife to chart her own course for 50 years."
Following the speeches, the audience crowded the front of the stage as the speakers gathered in the front of the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater where Evers' widow was presented with a flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.
After Evers' death, Evers-Williams worked as a civil rights advocate and was chairwoman of the NAACP, continuing the work of her late husband.
"Medgar was a man who never wanted aberration, who never wanted to be in the limelight. He was a man who saw a job that needed to be done and he answered the call and the fight for freedom, dignity and justice not just for his people but all people," Evers-Williams said during the ceremony.
Standing next to Evers' widow, Clinton praised her for continuing the civil rights fight after Evers' assassination.
"For 50 years, Myrlie Evers has managed to do what I have always thought was amazing," Clinton said. "She has kept the life and the memory and the meaning of Medgar Evers' life."