Book pays tribute to a different kind of civil rights leader

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 12:47 PM

This coming June will mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, by a white supremacist. The horror of that crime and other acts of injustice would lead to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Despite Evers’ central role in that history, “his brief but eventful life of quiet service and remarkable courage has been consigned to the periphery of both mainstream U.S. history and civil rights history,” writes Minrose Gwin in her new book “Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.”

Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, has dedicated her life to ensuring that Medgar Evers’ legacy is not forgotten, and Gwin discusses Evers-Williams’ memoir “For Us, the Living” at length in her book. By examining how Evers has influenced playwrights, memoirists, songwriters and other artists, Gwin’s study, some 10 years in the making, is a  tribute to the power of Evers’ quiet diligence and example. 

Gwin is the author of numerous scholarly works, along with a memoir (“Wishing for Snow”) and a novel, “The Queen of Palmyra,” the latter title based around the Evers story. In her work, she is interested in history and memory, and “how literature and art help us remember history,” Gwin said in a telephone interview.

Medgar Evers’ story has personal as well as scholarly meaning for her. She is from Tupelo, Miss., and “I grew up hearing about Medgar Evers from the white side of the race line,” Gwin said. “I was always interested in him and compelled by his heroism. I was growing up when he was killed. I feel like this is my history, too. I felt compelled to write about it for that reason,” she said.

“Remembering Medgar Evers” began as a larger project in which the Evers story was going to be a single chapter, Gwin said. But as she began digging into Evers’ story, she realized his influence on writers and artists warranted a single book.

One reason for Evers’ more obscure place in civil rights history was the kind of work he did. “We tend to think of the civil rights movement as being mainly in the ’60s,” Gwin said. “We tend to think of it as these outstanding leaders who stood above the crowd.” And while we rightly revere those leaders “Medgar Evers was a different king of leader …. He was a witness to the stories of others, and a reporter for the stories of others,” she said.

Evers investigated murders and other violations of civil rights and reported them to the NAACP’s national office. He is often overlooked because he worked on the local level, and is a symbol for the many unsung heroes of the movement, Gwin said.

Her novel “The Queen of Palmyra” grew out of her research for “Remembering Medgar Evers.” Set in the summer of 1963, the novel is the story of a young white girl who turns a blind eye to her father’s racial violence. “I was about halfway into the research part of this book and just felt like, I know this place, I know this time,” Gwin said. “I felt this deep compulsion to stop what I was doing and write about it.” She used her research in the novel, which includes some verbatim articles from the then-segregationist Jackson Clarion Ledger newspaper.

One of her purposes in writing the book is to link Evers to what some scholars have called “the long civil rights movement” – extending beyond the 1960s and the South to the present and globally. Gwin writes in her book: “Remembered, Evers’s life’s legacy pivots to the future, linking us to other human rights struggles, both local and global, and helping us see them as part of a larger, longer, more complex history.”

Gwin ends her book on a hopeful (yet far from Pollyannaish) note. “I think it’s so important to look back and understand how a man like Medgar Evers had the courage to do all the things he did,” she said. “Looking to the past gives us hope for the future.”