Evers and the continuing civil rights legacy

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 12:40 PM

All politics is local, the late Thomas P. O’Neill told us. The same holds true for important or traumatic historical events, writes Minrose Gwin, Kenan Eminent Professor of English at UNC, in her book “Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.”

The literature “of human-inflicted trauma is always local,” Gwin writes. “Traumatic events happen specifically and particularly somewhere: a place, a geographic location.” But events do not remain strictly local: “They and the human suffering they evoke proceed from site to site, generation to generation, century to century,” Gwin writes.

In her book, Gwin examines how novelists, playwrights, journalists, poets and songwriters have remembered and portrayed one particular historical trauma -- the cold-blooded murder of Medgar Evers, the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, in June 1963. Evers’ murder at the hands of Byron De La Beckwith “was the first death by assassination of a public figure in what would prove a long, grim trajectory of political killings of major American leaders of the sixties,” Gwin states. His murder also “galvanized support for civil rights and brought enraged African Americans into the streets across the country,” she states.

Her book is not intended as a biography of Evers, but an examination of how his life and death have inspired great songs and literature, and how the work of these artists, and our collective memory of Evers’ life’s work, might serve our continuing search for egalitarian and civil rights – the long civil rights movement of her title.

Gwin has created that most unlikely of books – a piece of literary criticism that also is a moving document of our time.  She begins with a discussion of three works that have become classics – James Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie,” Eudora Welty’s short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and Margaret Walker’s poem “Micah: In Memory of Medgar Evers of Mississippi.” Evers’ murder spurred all three writers to stop in their tracks and respond to the event, Gwin states. Baldwin had been working on his play, but committed to it full time after Evers was killed. Welty and Walker also interrupted other ongoing projects to respond to the murder.

Other chapters examine the different treatment of the murder by local Jackson, Miss., newspapers, including Evers’ own Mississippi Free Press, and by musicians from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone to the modern rap duo Dalek. One of the most poignant chapters examines the memoirs of Myrlie Evers-Williams, “For Us, The Living,” published in 1968, and of civil rights activist Anne Moody, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” published in 1968.

Gwin’s book is about our individual and collective memory of the civil rights struggle, and I could not read it without responding on a visceral level from my own past. One of the central events in my life, and my family’s life, was the integration of the schools in Wilmington, N.C., in 1971. What put us in the middle of the action was a busing plan that a federal judge ordered to integrate the local schools, and the public official who had to enforce that order was my father, who at the time was superintendent of schools.

I was a high school freshman that year, and space does not allow me to go into the complex relationships of that long-ago time. Suffice it to say, integration in 1971 was my first experience of the sting of white racism, born of resentment and fear of having to attend schools in black neighborhoods. Eventually, most people settled down and accepted the situation, but not until after an anti-busing group calling itself the Rights of White People demonstrated in front of our house.

I cannot claim that this demonstration incident was traumatic (fortunately, no violence occurred). My experience does not compare to what the late Joycelyn McKissick, an unsung hero, endured to integrate Durham High School in the early 1960s. Her sacrifice speaks to us in ways we do not know all these decades later. But from that moment in 1971 I understood my connection to civil rights. The 1954 Brown decision was no longer an abstraction; it now had personal meaning. This incident happened in a local place, and its memory for me, to quote Gwin, “persists stubbornly in the present.”  

The publication of Gwin’s book falls (coincidentally?) at the same time Durham residents are working on the Durham Civil Rights History Mural Project, a public art project that will get under way later this spring. Leading up to the creation of the mural, Benjamin Speller, former NCCU Library School dean, led several sessions in which the community has had a chance to learn about Durham’s civil rights history from the people who lived it, and to ask questions.

What happened during those sessions will be reflected in the mural, itself an exercise in remembering and understanding Durham’s role in the long civil rights movement of the past, and into the future.