Too Many Martyrs (A.K.A. The Ballad of Medgar Evers)
On the 11th of June 1963 President Kennedy addressed the nation on the need for Civil Rights, stating that;
“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
Myrlie Evers and her three children were watching Kennedy’s speech as her husband Medgar, the first ever Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) attended a meeting at a church hall. Very early the following morning, as Medgar stepped out of his car Byron De La Beckwith, hiding behind honeysuckle vines with a hunting rifle, shot Medgar Evers dead.
I know Evers was murdered by Beckwith because he was found guilty in a court of law, as David Stout reported;
“When the jury of eight blacks and four white people returned a guilty verdict on Feb. 5, 1994, he appeared dazed, as though not sure where he was.”
That wasn’t a typo. Beckwith was finally found guilty of murdering Medgar Evers 31 years after the fact. A jury of eight black men and four white found Beckwith guilty of a murder that in 1964 two all white juries couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t. Beckwith’s confusion was understandable. Mississippi in 1994 was a different creature to the one that Medgar Evers knew.
Beckwith was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist White Citizen’s Council, which was founded in Greenwood, Mississippi, Beckwith’s hometown. His racist credentials were impeccable. When awaiting trial for Evers’ murder in 1964 he counted Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett (he of “So listen Mr Barnett…” in Phil’s The Ballad of Oxford) as a visitor. Indeed while Myrlie Evers was giving evidence Barnett was a point of going over to Beckwith and shaking his hand. A public show of support. Had Bob Dylan known about Beckwith he would probably never have written “but he can’t be blamed/ He’s only a pawn in their game”.
When Josh Dunson, who wrote for Broadside, heard the news of Evers murder he said “Oh, God no, we’ve already got too many martyrs”. By the end of the decade there would be a whole lot more. Indeed in the history of 1960’s politics Evers’ death would be overshadowed by those of the Kennedy’s, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In a bitter irony King spoke of the “martyred heroism of Medgar Evers”, words that would become all too apt for King himself a few years later. To some extent it is thanks to songs such as this, and Dylan’s ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Death of Medgar Evers’, that keeps his name alive. As Benjamin Hooks, former NAACP Executive Director, wrote; “if we forget Medgar Evers, we will know too little of the sacrifices made to purchase our freedom”.
Not long after volunteering for the U.S. Army in 1943, Evers found himself protecting the beaches at Normandy, France. He also saw action in Liege, Antwerp, Le Havre and Cherbourg as part of the 325th Port Company, racially segregated, but commanded by white officers. But as Benjamin Hooks wrote; “Medgar Evers’ place in history rests not on a service on foreign fields against a foreign foe, but on his service and leadership in the war at home for the soul of America”. Beckwith also served with the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Upon their return to the U.S. however, they would be fighting on the opposite sides of a battle.
Evers enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), then a black college, where he met Myrlie and got his B.A. In 1954 Evers was refused admission to the University of Mississippi Law School. Also in 1954 the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case ruled educational segregation unconstitutional. It was this case that led to the founding of the White Citizen’s Council (W.C.C.). Some years later Evers and the W.C.C. would be prominent in the furore surrounding James Meredith’s admittance to the University that had unconstitutionally barred Evers’. It was here too, in the University Hospital, that Beckwith died, aged 80, in 2001. Medgar was buried at Arlington, with full military honours.
Phil’s song is as much a tribute to Evers life as a cry of anguish about his death. As with many of Phil’s early songs it’s not directed at anyone in particular, the song serving a little more than a vent for his anger, as if as a consequence of an insatiable urge rather than a carefully considered reaction. .
It’stwo titles are interesting. The Ballad of Medgar Evers suggests a song about the man while Too Many Martyrs suggests a song about something wider. And that is the crux of the issue surrounding topical songs – how can the songwriter write about something specific while also making a general point?
This was Phil’s first Mississippi song to make it onto record, but certainly not the last. Too Many Martyrs was a song borne of newspaper articles. His later Here’s To The State Of Mississippi was borne, in part at least, from personal experience. It is almost certainly his most angry and perhaps, controversial song – “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of”. Many people disagreed with Phil’s sentiments, if not perhaps his anger. Indeed, ironically, perhaps Medgar Evers would have been one such critic. Evers saw beyond the prejudice and injustice rife in his home state. He wrote that;
“It may sound funny but I love the South. I don’t choose to live anywhere else. There’s land here where a man can raise cattle, and I’m going to do it someday. There are lakes where a man can sink a hook and fight the bass. There is room for my children to play and grow and become good citizens – if the white man will let them…”
Medgar fought to make this dream a reality – not only on the streets of Jackson but also on the beaches of Normandy. After his death, and the gross injustice of the original trial of his killer, others took up the fight. During his funeral procession, the thousands who followed his coffin, black and white alike, sang – “After Medgar – no more fear. After Medgar – no more fear”. Walter Gardener, a contemporary of Evers said that his death “catalysed my interest in getting with trying to do something, to be a participant and not a bystander in our society”
In 1969 Medgar’s brother, Charles, became the first Black Mayor elected in Mississippi, and said that;
“Medgar and I said many years ago, if we ever end the violent racism in this state, it’ll be the greatest state in the world to live. And now Medgar, I know you’re gone, but I’m telling you son, it’s come to pass”.
Myrlie Evers reaction to Beckwith’s conviction in 1994, as reported in the New York Times by Ronald Smothers, was priceless;
“Outside a short time later, Myrlie Evers, the widow of the murdered civil rights worker, stood before reporters and warned that she was about to throw off the veil of composure that she had worn throughout the trial. She then broke into a smile, shouted a cheer and raised a clenched fist to the sky in triumph.”
It wasn’t just justice for her husband that she was celebrating, but it was that the world had seen a different Mississippi, and that the Mississippi that her husband had dreamed of and fought for, was possible.