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Rights + Justice

Medgar Evers and My Civil Rights Summer of '63

An activist murdered, and America roiling, I sought refuge in the army.

Crawford Kilian 12 Jun

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Medgar Evers, civil rights activist, was shot and killed by a white supremacist exactly 50 years ago today. Photo: Wikipedia.

Fifty years ago, on June 12, 1963, a black man named Medgar Evers arrived after midnight at his home in Jackson, Mississippi. He had been active in civil rights for years, and had spent the evening in discussions with lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

A white man named Byron de la Beckwith, who had been lying in wait for him, shot him in the back with a 1917 Enfield rifle. Evers died in hospital a little later.

You should understand that this was almost routine in the United States of 50 years ago. The myth of the 1960s is Woodstock and the summer of love; the reality was domestic terrorism, assassinations and bombed churches.

But the terrorists weren't crazed Islamists; they were ordinary white guys, hard-working pillars of their communities. Their targets were black people and the white kids who supported them. They'd been doing terrorism since Reconstruction, which is why H. Rap Brown would later say, "Violence is as American as cherry pie." Byron de la Beckwith saw himself as defending the system he lived in.

For me, Evers' death was a tipping point. In the summer of 1963, I was 22 and living in Hollywood, California. The year before, I'd graduated from university and come home to spend some time in limbo before the U.S. Army drafted me.

The response to terrorism in those days wasn't to make everyone go through airport security, or to set up a domestic security agency and start quietly amassing citizen data. It was to join the civil rights movement, "peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

When Byron de la Beckwith shot Medgar Evers, the civil rights movement already had plenty of grievances needing redress. The U.S. was a country where the Communists were the only political party that explicitly endorsed racial equality. Demonstrations had been going on for years. In 1959 I had gone from New York to Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak at a rally. That rally, and countless others, had not moved the country any closer to justice.

So it seemed like a natural thing, after Evers was killed, to call the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and join up.

Admittedly, it was a very small step in a very dangerous world. The previous October, the Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world with the prospect of a nuclear war. Los Angeles would of course be a prime target. TV news programs told us we should have at least two weeks' food on hand; our supermarket, the Ralphs at Poinsettia and Sunset Boulevard, was emptied in a couple of hours.

TV also told us the FBI would promptly round up subversives and stash them in long-prepared camps; my father looked at me, smiled wryly, and tapped his chest. As a "premature antifascist" he'd been blacklisted for years. World War III, if we weren't carbonized in it, would see us radicals treated like the Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbour.

Mercifully, the Russians backed down, life went on, and people tried unsuccessfully to return their excess groceries to Ralphs. The next month I both voted in the state elections and served as a clerk in our poll. It was the kind of thing I'd been brought up to do: for a red revolutionary, my father was remarkably fond of democratic institutions and the idea of public service -- including the draft.

Young bachelors' tales

In the U.S. 50 years ago, most young males expected to go into the military. Few wanted to. A whole genre of young bachelors' tales had flourished for years, describing ways to beat the physical: don't shower for a week, shave your armpits, wear your sister's underpants. Arlo Guthrie, in Alice's Restaurant, would later turn the genre into art.

The only real ways to beat the draft were to stay in school, get married, or join the National Guard -- you'd still have to play soldier in the summers, but not for two or three or four solid years. None of those were options for me.

The idea of dodging the draft was less acceptable than wearing your sister's underpants. The Second World War had been won by both volunteers and draftees. Ever since, draft dodgers had been down there with child molesters -- even for my parents, who were bitterly opposed to the imperialist adventures that American governments had launched since the start of the Cold War.

One of those adventures, of course, was Vietnam. But in the spring of 1963 it was a minor issue. The U.S. was, even more than now, absorbed in its internal affairs.

While I waited for the draft, as a CORE volunteer I started commuting into a part of LA I'd never seen before, South Central, to work with the black people who lived there. My job was essentially PR -- cranking out a little newsletter and filling it out with reviews of books about civil rights. Once in a while, CORE would hold a march, and we'd walk down streets past sidewalks lined with bemused black men. Their smiles seemed tolerant, as if they recalled their own idealistic youth.

Once a black colleague and I were interviewed by a local news program. The interviewer was a blue-eyed, intense man named Jack Barry who'd been extremely famous a few years before as the host of the rigged TV quiz show Twenty-One. After the show was exposed as fake, Barry had been almost unemployable. Now he was working his way back, interviewing unknown people in an unknown neighbourhood about an issue no one in LA really cared about.

'A riot here every weekend'

My colleague made an interesting observation during the interview: "There's a riot here every weekend. The papers and TV never cover it." This was as much news to me as to Jack Barry, but I would recall those words when the 1965 Watts riots broke out two summers later -- and the terrified young summer soldiers of the National Guard had to put the riots down.

My civil-rights activism was brief. CORE was involved in the March on Washington late that summer, but it had not been a big deal in South Central. My parents and I watched Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech on TV at home; we agreed it had been pretty good, but I doubted it would have any more lasting effect than the speech I'd heard him give in 1959.

Then the familiar "Greetings" letter arrived from Selective Service, ordering me to appear in downtown Manhattan for induction; a subway token was taped to the letter. I arranged to switch to downtown LA, and on a late-October morning I stepped forward and thereby became a soldier. The only guy who didn't was a Jehovah's Witness. I admired his guts.

The army as integrated utopia

Thereafter, and to my own surprise, I lived for two years in a strongly integrated society where nonwhite men wielded immense power as teachers and bosses of white boys like me. And they deserved to. My black and Filipino drill instructors were among the finest teachers I would ever meet. After basic training, the black sergeant who ran my clerical department was a superb boss -- calm, patient, and unflappable amid the military BS.

I actually liked the army. It gave a lot of guys like me a chance to grow up, get some skills, and think seriously about what they really wanted to do with their lives. I even toyed with with the idea of a military career. Life in the civilian world seemed to be getting crazier all the time -- JFK shot, Goldwater running for president, Malcolm X shot, and Vietnam turning from something you volunteered for to something certain to be in your future. But on weekend leave in LA or Berkeley, I began to hear of guys deserting, or moving to Sweden to avoid the draft.

A rumour swept the army that president Lyndon B. Johnson was about to declare war in Vietnam, and all draftees would be caught in the army indefinitely. By then I was close to my discharge date, but I figured if that happened I'd have to head for Canada.

It didn't happen, but after a couple of post-hitch years in wartime California, I thought Canada still looked pretty good. And it was. In the U.S., the killings and riots and terrorism (both domestic and state-sponsored) continued. To defend the system, the National Guard was now shooting college students, not black rioters. But that was all in another country now, one that had given up on peaceable assemblies.

And if Byron de la Beckwith had missed Medgar Evers on that night 50 years ago, and civil rights had inched ahead with fewer deaths, would I still have come to Canada? I suspect I would have.

The equality of the U.S. Army was not so much a civil policy as a military one, to ensure a steady supply of working-class boys needed to project American power around the world. In a counterfactual America where Evers lived, the war in Vietnam would still have happened because the system needed it. Premature antifascists would still have been convenient political targets, and marches would still have been ineffectual.

Eventually, even in a counterfactual America, a black man would have been elected president. And the system he defended would require him, as president, to authorize the assassination of enemies -- not with a 1917 Enfield rifle, but with missiles from drone aircraft halfway around the world.

It does not seem like much progress to show for 50 years.  [Tyee]

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