Medgar Evers, born in 1925 in the city of Decatur, was a soldier who fought in the invasion of Normandy in World War II before becoming Mississippi’s first field secretary for the NAACP. He was in charge of leading voter-registration drives and directing targeted economic boycotts across the state.
In addition, his job involved looking into hate crimes committed against African-American citizens. He launched an extensive investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynched in 1955.
As a result, Evers was used to receiving death threats. On one occasion, someone tried to run him over. Another time, someone threw a firebomb at his house, where he lived with his wife Myrlie and their young children. Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 12, 1963, by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. He was not yet 38 years old.
On June 19, 1963, a week after Evers’ murder, President John F. Kennedy sent to Congress the proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Barack Obama officially declared the home of Medgar Evers home a historic landmark in 2017.
There have also been a number of songs composed about him. Here are three of the most well-known:
“The Ballad of Medgar Evers”
The Freedom Singers were one of several noted choral groups active in the days of the Civil Rights movement. The Freedom Singers’ rendition of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” also known as “They Laid Medgar Evers in His Grave,” is one of a number of songs memorializing the slain civil rights leader. It was written by Reverend Matthew A. Jones, Sr., a SNCC field organizer who modeled its cadences on the folk song “The Ballad of Jesse James,” making it ideal for choral interpretation.
Notably, the lyrics of “The Ballad of Medgar Evers” name his murderer, white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Beckwith was not convicted of the slaying until 1994. However, the song lyrics provide contemporaneous evidence that he had immediately been identified as the killer by the community.
Strong forensic evidence pointed to Beckwith, who had left his rifle behind at the scene of the crime. Still, the all-white juries in two 1964 trials failed to reach a unanimous verdict. Myrlie Evers never stopped fighting for justice for her husband’s memory. In 1994, Beckwith was finally convicted. He would die in prison in 2001 at age 80.
“Too Many Martyrs”
As a young man, now-legendary folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs composed another “Ballad of Medgar Evers” at about the same time as the song written by Jones. The piece by Ochs has a faster tempo, but it also relies on traditional folk ballad rhythms and storytelling style. It begins with the image of “a boy of 14 years” who “got a taste of Southern law.” This is a reference to the murder of Emmett Till.
After learning of the Evers assassination, Josh Dunson, a writer for the folk music publication Broadside, was quoted as saying “We’ve already got too many martyrs.” The refrain of the Ochs piece references the many “martyrs” who lost their lives to hate-fueled violence. Ochs later called the song “Too Many Martyrs.”
Whatever its title, the song’s relentless pace and highly detailed imagery—describing Evers’ assassination as he stood in his own driveway—continue to elicit a visceral impact on listeners today. Evers got out of his car late on the night of June 12, 1963, after arriving home from a meeting. His assassin used a rifle to fire at him from the cover of a nearby honeysuckle bush, shooting him in the back. Evers died about an hour later.
“Only a Pawn in Their Game"
Bob Dylan was another folk and protest singer deeply moved by Evers’ murder. Dylan wrote his own tribute to Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game." He performed it at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Dylan’s song asserted that the murderer was “not to blame,” due to his being “a pawn in their game.” Instead, he depicted Beckwith as just another part of a wider system set in place by others and beyond his control.
Dylan also mentions the many law enforcement officers, white preachers of segregation, Ku Klux Klansmen, and even the governor of the state as other “pawns” in this game. In fact, Mississippi’s former Governor Ross Barnett shook hands with Beckwith in the middle of Myrlie Evers’ testimony at one of the killer’s 1964 trials. Barnett also visited Beckwith in prison.
The song’s larger point is that it is not only individuals who need to change, but also a system of entrenched racism. This message continues to be meaningful. However, in 2020, Dylan's lyrics sound hollow and tone deaf to many listeners, particularly because he is white. The song depicts adult human beings as mere chess pieces, rather than as men filled with hatred so strong that it would cause them to support, and sometimes to commit, acts of violence against innocent people.