For Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the memories of 1963 are still raw.
Medgar Evers in a 1962 interview with William Peters (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)
Her family lived in terror behind the locked doors of their Jackson, Miss., home -- a modest, three-bedroom, ranch-style house in one of the first new subdivisions built for African-Americans in Mississippi's segregated capital city. A back window in the tiny kitchen frames the backyard where Evers-Williams once grew rose bushes and a plum tree.
The family moved to Jackson when Evers accepted a job as the NAACP's first field secretary in the South -- a job that made him a target of the white supremacists who would stop at nothing to preserve Jim Crow.
"Medgar became No. 1 on the Mississippi 'to kill' list," Evers-Williams says. "And we never knew from one day to the next what would happen. I lived in fear of losing him. He lived being constantly aware that he could be killed at any time."
The house was firebombed. The kitchen phone rang constantly with threats. Scars from the attacks still remain today.
Finally, just after midnight on June 12, 1963, a bullet struck Medgar Evers as he pulled into the driveway. Inside the house, the Evers' three young children heard the gunfire.
Reena Evers-Everette, just 8 years old at the time, says they immediately acted out the emergency drill their family had practiced time and time again: dropping to the floor alongside her brother Darrel, pulling down their younger brother, Van, and going into the tub in the bathroom.
"And then," she says, "we stopped and ran down the steps and begged our father to get up."
They found him on the carport, in a pool of blood, shot in the back.
The murder made the national news. It was yet another report of the brutal response to civil rights activists in the South. Just a month before, police in Birmingham had turned fire hoses and police dogs on young protesters.
The violence in 1963 grabbed the nation's attention and galvanized support for the Civil Rights Act.
Evers had been laying the groundwork for nearly a decade by then. In his role as field secretary for the NAACP, he traveled the state -- registering voters, organizing boycotts of segregated businesses, and encouraging activists not to be intimidated. He also tried to lift what his widow calls the "cotton curtain" that had kept the violence in Mississippi hidden from the rest of the nation. One of his first NAACP assignments was investigating Emmett Till's murder in 1955.
"Mississippi is a race-haunted place," says Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
Source: NPR | DEBBIE ELLIOTT