Each civil rights leader had his own role to play in the struggle for integration. Thurgood Marshall was the lawyer. Martin Luther King, Jr., the inspiring orator. And Medgar Evers was the martyr.
Evers was the field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. After President Kennedy had given a nationally televised civil rights speech on June 11, 1963, Evers's wife had let their three children stay up past midnight to wait up for their father, who was returning from a strategy meeting. At about 12:20, they heard the sound of his car, which they recognized. Then they heard the car door open, and then the sound of a rifle shot.
The children kept crying "Daddy, get up, please get up," as their father bled to death.
Medgar Evers was back in the news over the weekend with the U.S. Navy's christening, at San Diego, of the USNS Medgar Evers, a 689-foot, $500 million new dry cargo/ammunition ship. There were remarks by the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi. And by Medgar Evers's widow, Myrlie, who said, ""I will not have to go to bed ever again wondering whether anyone will remember who Medgar Evers is."
To some it may seem incongruous to name a warship after a slain civil rights leader. But the more one learns about Evers, the more sense it makes. As Adam Nossiter writes in his book Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, Evers earned medals for his World War II Army service in the Normandy invasion and the campaign in Northern France, and he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In a televised address on May 20, 1963, less than a month before his death, that is reprinted in The Autobiography of Medgar Evers, Evers said, with evident pride, "I speak as a native Mississippian. I was educated in Mississippi schools, and served overseas in our nation's armed forces in the war against Hitlerism and Fascism."
Before going to work for the NAACP full time, Evers made his living as a businessman. A salesman for the Magnolia Mutual life insurance company, he sold NAACP memberships along with the life insurance policies.
Writes Mr. Nossiter: "Unlike other civil rights leaders in the 1960s, Evers had thoroughly American, thoroughly middle-class aspirations. As a college student working the Chicago meatpacking plants during the summer, he knew few greater pleasures than driving out to the Evanston suburbs to gaze covetously at the grand suburban mansions."
While subsequent generations of protesters—whether against the Vietnam War or today's Occupy Wall Street crowd—sometimes seem at odds with mainstream American values, or indifferent to them, Evers was as American as the Declaration of Independence he quoted in his speeches.
In the immediate aftermath of Evers's murder, probably not even the most wild-eyed dreamer could have imagined that one day the administration of a black president of the United States would be naming a navy ship for Medgar Evers. It's perhaps a sign of how far America has come that the ship's christening wasn't even that big a news story. The New York Times didn't mention it.
Medgar Evers would have been proud — all he ever wanted was full participation in America. His memory is an inspiration for all of us who believe both that America is pretty great to begin with and that it can get better over time thanks to the sacrifices of heroes.