Medgar Evers' Son Honors Civil Rights Icon In His Own Way
James Van Dyke Evers was only 3 when his father, Medgar, was assassinated in the driveway of the family's home in Jackson, Miss., in June 1963.
A sniper shot Medgar Evers in the back as he returned from a meeting late at night. Tensions had been running high because Evers, the first field secretary for the NAACP, was making headway in pushing the state's black citizens to register to vote. White Mississippians who had lived comfortably under segregation could feel the ground shifting beneath them — and they didn't like it.
Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers, regularly received death threats tied to Evers' work. They had created a drill for their two older children, Reena and Darrell: If you hear shots, drop to the floor and carefully crawl to the bathroom. Get in the tub. You'll be safe there. Watch out for your brother. The tub was a bulwark of porcelain-covered cast iron, strong enough to stop a bullet or protect from a firebomb.
So on the evening that Byron De La Beckwith fired a rifle at Medgar Evers as Evers was emerging from his car, Reena and Darrell Evers did what they'd been told. They took their little brother, Van, with them to the bathroom and placed him in the tub and ran outside when they heard their mother's cries. They encircled their father while he bled in the driveway. He died in a local hospital an hour later.
That was 50 years ago. Van Evers, now a handsome man with his father's height and his mother's charm, has had plenty of time to think about what's been taken from him.
"I feel as if I gave up both of my parents to the movement," he says in a park near his Pasadena home. "After Dad died, Mom was gone a lot. She had to support us, she had to carry on my dad's work, so she frequently wasn't there. We were alone a lot," he says, and family and friends looked after the siblings in their mother's absence.
But Van Evers is not complaining. His mother is his hero. "If I can do nearly as much as what my mother has done in family, togetherness, tightness of a unit, I've been successful," he says.
While Myrlie Evers-Williams — she remarried in 1975, to labor organizer Walter Williams, who died in 1995 — did continue her work in the movement that her first husband died for, Van Evers decided to go another route. He's a successful commercial photographer doing portraits, editorial work and still photography on television shows. He does not announce who his parents are, because he wants to make his own way through life.
It's a decision not everyone agrees with. He tells, with some irritation, of a very well-known movement veteran who chastised him for not picking up the torch.
"It's not my calling," he says simply. "There have been famous people who would say, 'Why aren't you doing what your dad did?' And I look at them and say, 'Well, guess you've not been in my position.' "
Evers is married with two sons, and he spends as much time with them as possible. "Having my dad taken from me — and I didn't get to do things like playing ball in the park, and all the rest of that stuff — I feel like the most important thing I can do for my kids is give them what I didn't get."
He may not have as many memories of his father as his older siblings, but Van Evers has inherited something significant: his father's love and aptitude for photography. Medgar Evers was known to take a camera with him almost everywhere he went.
Van Evers didn't know he shared his father's love of photography until a young neighbor handed his camera over and showed Evers how to work it. He was entranced: "I looked through the camera and took a picture, and it was magic. I could frame a life in that lens."
From that point on, he knew what he wanted to do.
Evers put his skill to good use in 2013, when his mother gave the invocation at Barack Obama's second inauguration. The family was invited to the presidential viewing stand to watch the inaugural parade pass before the Obamas and their guests. And Nolan and Alex Evers, 12 and 13, got to shake the president's hand as their grandmother looked on proudly.
Nice synergy, that: Obama, the 44th president of the United States, the first black president of the United States, was shaking the hands of the grandchildren of Medgar Evers, whose work made his historic victory possible.
And Van Evers captured it all with his camera.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This summer, NPR is looking back at watershed moments in the Civil Rights Movement. Among the legacies of that era are the children of people killed because of their work to bring about racial equality. They're sometimes called Children of the Martyrs.
Today, NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates introduces us to Van Evers, the son of Medgar Evers, whose work to register black voters cost him his life.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: June 11th, 1963, Jackson, Mississippi. In the early evening, Myrlie Evers and her three children - Reena, Darrell and Van - had been gathered around the television to hear President John F. Kennedy tell the country it would begin to experience desegregation in earnest soon.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: A great change is at hand. And our task, our obligation is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.
BATES: The night of the speech, Myrlie Evers allowed her children to stay up and wait for their father who had, as he often did, worked late. As the first field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers did work that was dangerous and necessary to desegregate what some called the meanest state in the country. The family had received so many death threats that the Evers regularly ran household drills to teach their children how to drop to the floor and crawl to the safety of their bathtub to avoid the damage from bullets and firebombs.
A few moments after midnight, Medgar Evers' car turned into the driveway. But then, as he was exiting the car, a shot rang out.
(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The bullet hit him in the back, crashed through his body, through a window into the house. He died within an hour at a Jackson hospital.
BATES: Medgar Evers was just 37 years old. He'd been killed by an angry segregationist for his voter registration activities and for urging blacks to boycott Jackson businesses that insisted on remaining segregated.
MEDGAR EVERS: Don't shop for anything on Capitol Street. Let's let the merchants feel the economic pinch.
BATES: James Van Dyke Evers still marvels at his father's courage. He was three when his dad was killed. Now, at 53, he has his mother's charm and his father's love of photography. Medgar Evers was known to take a camera with him everywhere he went.
After his murder, the family fled Mississippi for California, where Van Evers grew up. And he now has a job that would make his father smile. He's a successful professional photographer, doing commercial and editorial work.
Sitting in a park not far from his Pasadena home, Evers says he went back to Mississippi with his mother in June, to be honored at ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of his father's death, and celebrating his life and work. It was not an easy trip to make.
VAN EVERS: Going back to Mississippi is always a difficult thing for me. It brings back memories, not very pleasant memories.
BATES: He's proud of the racial progress Mississippi has made since his father's death and proud of the part his father had in creating that progress. But it came at a huge personal cost to Van Evers, one he isn't sure he'd pay if he'd had the choice.
EVERS: Being selfish, I'd give it all back to have Dad.
BATES: Growing up, Van Evers says he felt as if he'd given both of his parents to the movement. Myrlie Evers was often on the road, making speeches to provide for the children and continuing her husband's work. When she was home, she made sure her children knew they were important parts of their father's life.
EVERS: She's like, Dad would drive from I don't even know the counties, do anything to get back for my brother and sister if they had events. He loved us.
BATES: And that influences his own parenting. Van Evers and his wife are raising two young sons and he's very clear on what he wants for his own children.
EVERS: The most important thing I can do in my life is give my kids what I did not get.
BATES: Some have questioned Evers for making family his priority, rather than continuing his father's work. That irritates him.
EVERS: That was not my calling. And, you know, society and people, famous people have - well, why aren't you doing what your dad did?
BATES: They actually ask you that?
EVERS: Oh, yeah? Why aren't you picking up the torch? And why aren't you moving along? Why don't you just - and I look at them and it's like, I guess you've not really been ever in my position.
BATES: Evers has created a rich, full life. And like, many of the martyrs' children, he is remarkably philosophical about his loss. To feel hatred for all whites because one white man killed his father? No. That would go to a very dark place in his soul and he refuses.
EVERS: My dad gave his life for us not to live on the dark side, not to live with anger and not to live in fear.
BATES: In 2008, Van Evers did what he's always done to honor his father's work, he voted. He says he felt his dad was with him when he entered the voting booth. Some time later, Evers and his family visited the White House. Barack Obama shook hands with the children whose grandfathers' work on voter registration helped to make his job possible.
And Van Evers, of course, documented the moment with a photograph.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
CORNISH: Karen covers race, ethnicity and culture for NPR's Code Switch team.
We have conversations with other children of Civil Rights martyrs, including Martin Luther King III, at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.