A Free Man
Remembering Charles Evers
When Charles Evers died last week at 97, the New York Times obituary was suitably respectful. Running nearly 1,400 words, it rightly counted Evers, along with Representative John Lewis and Martin Luther King lieutenant C. T. Vivian, among the “prominent civil rights leader to die within a week.” It went on to describe Evers’s personal transformation, following the 1963 assassination of his brother Medgar, from petty criminal to civil rights icon in his own right, and the success of campaigns he organized, after succeeding Medgar as Mississippi NAACP field director, for voting rights and against Jim Crow businesses. Hardly least, it stressed his role in the changing politics of the South. Indeed, Evers’s 1969 election as mayor of the tiny Delta town of Fayette made him the first black to run a Mississippi municipality since Reconstruction, forcing the region to “confront its racist past and the implications of Black voters’ power at the polls.” As Evers said, “Hands that picked cotton can now pick the mayor.”
Fulsome as it was, however, and seemingly exhaustive, the obituary failed to note a singular and vital fact about its subject: that he was a confirmed maverick and independent thinker, with no use for dogma about race or anything else. Indeed, in the long decades following the passage of civil rights legislation, Evers never wavered in his commitment to a colorblind society—or in his pride in the remarkable extent, as he saw it, to which America had achieved this goal. It is this conviction that distinguished him from such other laudable movement figures as Lewis, who, as a fixed and unchanging voice—and congressional vote—for policies that did little to improve the lot of his constituents, in many ways spent the rest of his long career as a prisoner of the past.
That the Times would fail to give its readers a fuller picture of this remarkable man is as predictable as it unfortunate. The paper’s own investment in portraying America as irredeemably racist is now the central feature of the brand.
Thus, the paper duly notes that Evers co-chaired Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign in Mississippi, and that three years later, as the first black candidate to run for governor of the state, he was backed by Coretta Scott King and the Black Congressional Caucus.
What the paper does not mention is that Evers endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. And—proclaiming, “jobs are badly needed in Mississippi”—Donald Trump in 2016.
My own brush with Evers was brief but memorable.
In 2007, I went to Mississippi to report on the disheartening but all-too-telling case of Charles Pickering, a longtime district judge whose nomination by George W. Bush to the Fifth Court of Appeals had been scuttled by left/liberal special interest groups and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Even by the standards they generally employ against strict-constructionist nominees, the tactics used by the Democrats—notably Ted Kennedy, John Edwards, Chuck Schumer, and Richard Durbin—were mind-bogglingly vicious in the fight against Pickering. As Byron York observed at the time, since Pickering was “without any obvious professional or personal deficiencies,” the Democrats smeared the courtly grandfather of 21 as a racist—claiming as proof an incidental ruling taken out of context, but in essence relying on nothing more than the damning reality, in the liberal worldview, that Pickering had been a white Mississippian during the Jim Crow era.
In fact, the caricature his political and media foes so aggressively promoted was the very opposite of the truth; during those fraught and dangerous of years, Pickering had been heroic. As A young prosecuting attorney for Jones County, he took on the White Knights of the KKK, the most vicious of all Klan outfits, eventually bringing Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers to trial for the murder of a black man—an act of near suicidal courage. A few years later, when so many white parents put their children in private “academies” rather than Mississippi’s newly integrated schools, the Pickerings sent all four of their children to the local schools.
Even as the national NAACP joined other left-wing organizations in opposing Bush’s nomination of Pickering, those with whom the judge had worked knew better. And Charles Evers was in the middle of the fight.
When Mike Wallace and a 60 Minutes crew trekked down to Mississippi for a report on the Pickering battle, Evers, after completing his own interview, asked if he could join in on the next one, with the national NAACP’s Clarence McGee.
“You know that Charles Pickering was the man that helped us break the Ku Klux Klan?” demanded Evers. “Did you know that?”
McGee admitted that he hadn’t.
EVERS: Well, I know that. Do you know about the young black man that was accused of robbing the young white woman? Do you know about that?
EVERS: So Charles Pickering took the case, came to trial, and won the case, and the young man became free.
McGEE: I don’t know about that.
EVERS: All right. But did you also know that Charles Pickering is the man who helped integrate his—his churches? Do you know about that?
“Well,” concluded Evers contemptuously, “you don’t know a thing about Charles Pickering.”
Evers recalled the confrontation when I interviewed him in his office in the small radio station he owned in Jackson. “That young punk didn’t know nothin’ about nothing,” he said contemptuously. “That’s all you gotta say in this country, a white man’s a racist, this white man hates black folks. Well, I could not let them destroy a white man just because he’s white, when I know different.”
“Once I couldn’t walk down the street with a white woman,” he mused a bit later, then pointed to a photo on the opposite wall. “See that, now I got a white son-in-law and white grandkids.”
If Charles Evers sounds like a voice from another time, alas, that’s what he is—but the kind needed more than ever today.
Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien / CC BY-SA
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