JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Civil rights leader Medgar Evers helped create a more inclusive and open Mississippi by increasing black voter registration, Gov. Phil Bryant said Wednesday during a service marking the 50th anniversary of Evers' assassination.
A racially diverse crowd of more than 150 people gathered outside the Mississippi Museum of Art in downtown Jackson for speeches, gospel singing and the ringing of bells to remember the NAACP leader who was killed outside his home just after midnight on June 12, 1963. Evers was 37.
The Republican governor stood by Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, just before going on stage to speak. Bryant said Evers "paid the ultimate sacrifice" in challenging segregation.
"The young people that I met, who were here reading today, live in a vastly different Mississippi than existed 50 years ago because of the hard work of men like Medgar Evers and women like Myrlie Evers," said Bryant, 58. "So, as we ring the bell today, we pay homage to them."
Evers, a World War II veteran from Newton, Miss., was hired in 1954 as the state's first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In addition to working for black voter registration, he led a boycott of downtown Jackson's white-owned businesses, where black customers received shoddy service and few black clerks were hired.
Evers also investigated violence against African-Americans, including the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was said to have whistled at a white woman working in a grocery store in rural Money, Miss. Till was kidnapped from his uncle's home near Money and was beaten beyond recognition and shot in the head. His body was weighted down with a fan from a cotton gin and dumped into the Tallahatchie River.
Till's mother allowed photos of his brutalized body to be published in Jet magazine, and the images galvanized the civil rights movement.
Simeon Wright is one of Till's cousins and was in the home the night Till was taken. Wright said during the memorial service Wednesday that Evers was "a light in a dark place" during the investigation of the slaying — a crime for which two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury.
Wright said Evers taught him how to give a sworn statement to investigators.
"He said, 'Whatever you do, tell the truth. Tell the truth,'" Wright said.
During the service Wednesday, four young adults read several quotes from religious leaders and civil-rights activists, including this 1961 statement from Evers, which was printed on a banner with a black-and-white photo of him: "Let me of good will and understanding change the old order, for this is a new day."
In 1967, Democrat Robert Clark of Ebenezer became the first black Mississippian since Reconstruction to win a seat in the state House of Representatives. Clark, who knew Evers, served 36 years. By the time he retired, black representation in the state House and Senate was almost equal to Mississippi's 38 percent black population — a change that was largely made possible by two federal laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"I did not take a single vote during those 36 years that Medgar would not have taken himself," Clark said.
Hollis Watkins, 71, of Jackson, was a teenager when he became involved in civil rights work and met Evers, who was 15 years older. He said Evers was not afraid to speak truth to power.
"Medgar did his job," Watkins said. "The question becomes: How about us today? Are we doing our work?"
A white segregationist, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried twice for Evers' slaying in the 1960s, but all-white juries deadlocked without convicting or acquitting him. After a reopened investigation, Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison. He was 80 when he died in custody in 2001.
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