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The Sun Herald (Mississippi)

45 Year Later, Medgar Evers' Legacy Inspires

Mary Perez

It was 45 years ago today Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his Jackson home just hours after leaving the Coast, and soon after, President Kennedy gave a televised speech on civil rights.0612 03 1

Evers, the field agent for the Mississippi NAACP, was on the Coast a day earlier, planning a wade-in with Dr. Gilbert Mason for June 16, 1963. They hoped the protest would lead to blacks being allowed access to Mississippi's public beaches.

Evers was shot shortly after midnight on June 12 as he got out of his car and dragged himself to the back door of his home, where he died in front of his wife and three children.

"Every year this time," said Robert L. Stepney, who fell quiet before remembering the anniversary of his friend's death. He thinks about Evers, his college roommate for three years, and said, "You don't have many good friends."

The two met at Alcorn State University, where Evers went after serving in an all-black Army regiment in Europe during World War II. Evers was a quarterback on the football team and Stepney was his favorite wide receiver.

"We were like brothers," said Stepney, who moved to Gulfport in the 1960s and was a coach for 36 years. "When he came to the Coast, he would always come and stay with us."

"I was a young child in Columbus, Miss., when I heard about him being killed," said James Crowell, NAACP-Biloxi president.

He believes Barack Obama being a possible presidential nominee "equates to what started with Medgar Evers in those early years."

Evers and Martin Luther King gave their lives for what they believed and Crowell said, "I take my hat off to them. I don't have the threats that they had back in their days."

Just a week before Evers was killed, a firebomb was tossed into the carport of his home. On June 11, Dr. Felix Dunn of Gulfport called Evers to warn him he was in danger.

"They all knew they were in danger," said Gulfport attorney Felicia Dunn-Burkes, daughter of Dr. Dunn, who fought for civil rights on the Coast with Mason.

They would call each other "anytime someone got a credible indication that there was a real and present threat, not just that constant threat that was out there."

Dunn-Burkes said her recollections are from her childhood. Evers was the point person for all the state's NAACP groups, and "he was the voice to the national office."

When her parents went to Jackson to NAACP meetings, she went along. "We were there for all the programs. We were on the beach for all the wade-ins."

She admired Evers' organization skills and his "fabulous recall. He was able to pull facts and pull names and pull resources. He was just beyond fearless. He was so committed and confident in the rightness of what he was doing. He was always at peace. Never worried because he knew he was right."

Stepney said he, Evers and two cars full of students from Alcorn went to register to vote in Decatur around 1947.

An old white man came out and told them, "I don't want to see any of y'all get hurt. Don't try to go in and vote. You don't know these people here."

Evers said the gentleman didn't have to warn them and Stepney said the man probably saved their lives.

"I introduced him to his wife," Myrlie Beasley, said Stepney, who along with his wife were godparents to their three children.

It would be five years after Evers' death, in 1968, that the Mississippi beaches were legally open to blacks, and the schools weren't desegregated until the 1970s, said Dunn-Burkes.

Evers' killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of his murder more than 30 years later in 1994 after Evers' body was exhumed and the bullet tied the suspect to the murder.

A Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will be built at Tougaloo College near Jackson.

Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop, who served on the site selection committee, said Evers' slaying had a profound effect and underscored the violent nature of the civil rights movement.

"I think it will help to capture in very concise detail the movement and the story that is told here in Mississippi," Bishop said.

© 2008 Sun Herald

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