Three civil rights icons — Charles Evers, John Lewis and C.T. Vivian — all died last week, and of the three, Evers’ passing received the least national publicity.
Or, at least, that’s the way it seemed to me.
Lewis, the veteran U.S. congressman from Georgia who in 1965 was severely beaten as he marched for civil rights in Selma, Alabama, was the most celebrated.
That’s understandable. Lewis, nicknamed the “conscious of Congress”, never wavered from his non-violent commitment to equal justice from his youth to age 80. His words and actions checked all the boxes of what it takes to be a liberal legend.
Evers, who died at age 97 in his native Mississippi, was from a different mold than Lewis, but he made his mark just the same.
A World War II veteran, Charles Evers had spent most of his early adult life as a “businessman”, much of it illegal dealing in vice in Chicago.
He returned to Mississippi after the assassination of his younger brother, Medgar, in 1963 to take up the mantle of leading the NAACP.
Charles and Medgar were opposites — Medgar gentle and diplomatic; Charles not so much. To paraphrase the popular song performed by both Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Charles “did it my way.”
As mayor of Fayette, he was among what soon became a large number of Black elected officials in Mississippi. He ran, unsuccessfully, for other offices, but, as an Independent candidate, he took enough votes away from Democrat nominee Maurice Dantin to elect Republican Thad Cochran to the U.S. Senate in 1978 — ushering in the trend toward eventual Republican control of the Mississippi congressional delegation.
Unlike the majority of Black civil rights activists, Evers often identified with Republicans, supporting both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
Reflecting on Evers’ death brings to mind an oft told story about the Evers brothers, before they were teenagers, attending a political rally for one of history’s most race-baiting politicians, Theodore G. Bilbo.
Perhaps the tale has been embellished over the years, as these kind of things often are as time goes by. But it’s still a good story.
One account is related in a 2017 doctoral dissertation at the University of Missouri-Columbia by Krinstin R. Henze.
He wrote that Medgar and Charles Evers “began attending Bilbo’s campaign speeches near the Newton County Courthouse in Decatur. While most blacks avoided Bilbo’s political rallies, Charles and Medgar attended them for entertainment. After occupying seats with good sight lines to watch the speaker on the platform and the reactions of the crowd, Charles noted that Bilbo would ‘start out high-toned, but soon he’d be waving and sweating at the forehead, rearing and stomping, waving his arms.’
“During one speech, Bilbo noticed the two brothers sitting on the courthouse steps and specifically pointed his finger at them, stating ‘if we fail to hold high the wall of separation between the races, we will live to see the day when those two n***** boys there will be asking for everything that is ours by right. If you don’t keep them in their place,’ he bellowed, ‘then someday they’ll be in Washington trying to represent you.’
“In response, Medgar leaned over and whispered ‘ain’t a bad idea,’ while Charles aimed a wide smile at Bilbo, prompting the senator to squawk ‘he’s even got the nerve to grin at me!’”
It’s ironic how prophetic some of those wild political speeches turn out to be.