By Annette Finley-Croswhite

For Black History Month, the Center for Faculty Development honors Medgar Evers and Myrlie Beasley Evers-Williams, key leaders of the civil rights movement whose love story and contributions to American history are explored in a new book reviewed here.

Famed journalist and host of MSNBC’s “The Reid Out”, Joy-Ann Reid, is very clear about her book’s thesis. She tells us on page two that it is a love story, but not one simply about two young people from Mississippi. It is also about the “higher love,” Reid says that Black Americans had for an America that didn’t want them, a love that motivated them to fight for freedom when doing so put their lives at risk. In a fast-paced and emotionally-stirring 304 pages, Reid thus superimposes Medgar and Myrlie’s personal love story over their larger fight for civil rights. She argues Medgar Evers’ organizational activities in Mississippi established the foundational structure for later activism, and she explains why historical memory of Evers has largely vanished. Gunned down in the carport of his home on July 12, 1963, his death was soon overshadowed by other major events including the March on Washington in August of 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy later that same year, the shooting of Malcolm X in 1965, and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Part of Reid’s reason for writing the book, therefore, is to revive memory of Evers and reposition him at the forefront of civil rights leadership. She casts both Medgar and Myrlie as transformation leaders who loved each other and their children in the midst of navigating the violence and racism of their times. Reid explains, “Medgar Evers with Myrlie as his partner in activism and in life, was doing civil rights work in the single most hostile and dangerous environment in America: Mississippi,” (p. 6). Much of the book is based on Reid’s interviews with Evers’ widow, who is alive today. Myrlie’s memories provide the lens through which the couple’s story is told.

Medgar Evers was an American hero. Born in 1925 he served his nation in World War II in both England and France, and in June of 1944 he participated in the D-Day Invasions on Omaha Beach as part of the “Red Ball Express” a largely segregated unit that loaded and unloaded weapons and kept the front lines supplied. In Europe he also had a relationship with a French girl whose parents accepted him and welcomed him into their home. He could have stayed in France, Reid informs us, and enjoyed greater freedoms, but he opted to return to Mississippi where he knew just having a white girlfriend would get him lynched. Indeed, Medgar’s mother worried that the couple’s postwar international correspondence threatened his life, and she urged Medgar to discontinue writing to his former love. 

Back in Mississippi, Medgar returned to a world where white people could kill African Americans with impunity, and he knew it was wrong. After the 1955 lynching of fourteen- year-old Emmett Till, Evers by then an NAACP field secretary, was determined to seek justice for the murdered boy. Reid tells us that when Blacks were lynched in the South, there were no trials because the American legal system never held whites accountable. Till’s murder, nevertheless, drew public attention, and Reid credits Evers with getting the case brought to trial, an event that galvanized the civil rights movement even though Till’s murderers were found not guilty. From there, Evers took up the cause of other victims of racist violence while traveling across the state to establish NAACP field offices and youth councils, fight for voting rights, organize boycotts and picket lines, and help get James Meredith admitted to the University of Mississippi where he became the first Black student to attend “Ole Miss.” By then Evers’ name was well known to local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, and the death threats against his life increased. The Evers’ home was firebombed in 1962, portending greater violence to come.  

Amidst all of Evers’ civil rights work, Reid also weaves the powerful love story of Medgar and Myrlie. Their personal narrative began as college students at an HBCU known as Alcorn A & M, later Alcorn State University. She was 17 and he was 25 when they met, and it was love at first sight. But Myrlie’s family disapproved of the pairing, especially since Evers was so much older than Myrlie. She was a talented musician, and her family saw marriage as ending their dreams for her of becoming a classical pianist. Love won out. Their first kiss occurred while Myrlie was playing the piano, and the couple married the next year in 1951. Three children were born in the years that followed, Darrell Kenyatta, Reena Denise, and James Van Dyke Evers. Medgar dreamed of a fourth child which his murder rendered impossible.

The couple’s love for each other and their children was significant to their personal identities. Myrlie referenced her marriage as a “blessed relationship,” (p. 85), but it certainly was not an easy love. While their attraction to each other was profound, Myrlie resented the time that Medgar spent traveling with his work and thus his time away from home. Anxiety about their safety and the safety of their children also created a high-stress environment for the Evers. They had typical marital quarrels, especially when he showed up unannounced with dinner guests in tow, expecting her to whip up a hearty meal using their meager funds. At one point the tension was so great that they even discussed divorcing. Afterwards, they rekindled their love, and Myrlie made the conscious decision to be more supportive. Medgar explained to her, “I’m fighting for you and my children, and other parents and their children,” (p. 86). She later reflected , “I really had no answer for that because I knew how sincere he was” (p. 86).

The book is a complex read, sometimes delightful, sometimes compelling, but far too often just plain chilling. The chapter entitled “The House on Guynes Street,” for example, explains how the Evers’ modest ranch-style home was purposely built with security in mind. Gravel covered the roof to make an intruder’s movements more easily heard. There was no front door, so it was less obvious when Medgar or his family were coming or going. Medgar also kept guns in the house for protection. It is heart-wrenching to read how the children were trained to hit the floor at the burst of any loud noise, which is exactly what they did the night their father was shot in his carport in Jackson, Mississippi in a Klan-related assassination. The children were still on the floor, Darrell cradling his little brother Van in his arms, when Myrlie opened the carport door to find her brave husband and freedom fighter bleeding to death. He was only 37 years old. That was also the moment the mantle of civil rights activist and NAACP leader passed from him to her. Another chapter, “How to be a Civil Rights Widow” acknowledges the young thirty-year old Myrlie as the first national civil rights widow years before Betty Shabazz or Coretta Scott King. It was this widow who fought for decades to bring Medgar’s killer, Byron De La Beckwith, to justice which finally occurred in 1994. Much of Myrlie’s life since 1963 has been spent fighting for equality for Black Americans and securing the legacy of her beloved husband.

Setting the book down, one marvels at the courage Black activists like Medgar and Myrlie Evers embraced in the bloody decades of mid-twentieth-century America. And one wonders why such stories are elided today from the larger narrative of American history at the very time when there remains so much to be done in the pursuit of equality and social justice. Reid has given us much to ponder and much to honor when considering the heroic actions and long-term impact of Medgar and Myrlie Evers.