"A Bullet from the Back of a Bush"
-- The Life and Death of Medgar Wiley Evers
(Jul 2, 1925-Jun 12, 1963)

Photograph of Medgar Evers monument by kind permission of Scott Ealy.

Published in "Dignity", No. 9, Mar/Apr 1997, pp. 18-24;
© Manfred Helfert, 1997.

A chess set sitting on a table in a booth of a (rather authentically recreated) Greenwich Village folk club of the 1960s (complete with a jovial bartender, pictures of other folk "heroes" like Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary, et al on smoke-stained walls and the inevitable jukebox stacked with Dylan's songs of the early 1960s....) -- you click on the set, and you see an angry young man -- Bob Dylan -- performing his "Only a Pawn in Their Game" at Silas Magee's Farm in Greenwood, Mississippi, Jul 6, 1963...

Originally featured in D.A. Pennebaker's 1965 "Don't Look Back", this audiovisual "clip" on the Sony/Graphix Zone CD-Rom is the earliest documented performance of Bob Dylan's song about the murder of NAACP Civil Rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers...

The New York Times singled out Dylan's performance in their Jul 7, 1963 edition ("Northern Folk Singers help out at Negro Festival in Mississippi").

Bernice Johnson Reagon, member of the participating Freedom Singers," (still musically active as part of the all-female group "Sweet Honey In the Rock") recalls:

I was just sitting on a step, and he came up to me and said, "Bernice, I wrote a song..."

Robin Denselow, When the Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop, London, 1990, p. 38.

(Words and Music by Bob Dylan)
© 1963, 1964 Warner Bros. Inc
© Renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name...

Guynes Street, Jackson, Mississippi -- a quiet middle-class (mostly black) neighborhood of small, ranch-style brick houses, late-model cars parked in the driveways...

Jun 12, 1963...
It was just past midnight... when Evers drove up to his Jackson home. He got out of his car with a bundle of T-shirts, to be handed out next morning to civil rights demonstrators. Across the front of the T-shirts was stamped: JIM CROW MUST GO. Evers took only a few steps. Then, from honeysuckle thicket about 150 ft. away, came a shot.

The bullet tore into Evers' back, plowed through his body, pierced a window and a wall in the house, and came to rest beneath a watermelon on a kitchen counter. Evers' wife Myrlie cried to her three small children to fall to the floor. She ran outside. "Medgar was lying there on the doorstep in a pool of blood," she said. "I tried to get the children away. But they saw it all -- the blood and the bullet hole that went right through him."

TIME, Jun 21, 1963.

That night, Medgar Evers, age 37, had attended a mass meeting at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, while his wife Myrlie and his children had watched President Kennedy's televised "moral crisis" speech.

The subject was civil rights, and Kennedy was direct: if America paid no attention to skin color when drafting troops for Vietnam, why should it care about color at the public schools or ballot box? There was no time for Eisenhower-like fence-sitting: "Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?' The case for equality was a mortal one. 'We cannot say to ten percent of the population... that your children can't have the chance to develop whatever talents they have.... I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that...."

Jennie Brown, Medgar Evers -- Activist, Los Angeles, 1994, p. 157.

Medgar Evers knew what the President referred to. Born on Jul 2, 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, Evers had dropped out of high school to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942. As part of an all-black unit, Medgar saw action in France and was astonished at the French people's utter lack of racism. He was treated as a soldier, no more and no less, and was even able to date a French girl with no objection from her family.

World War II was a watershed event for black servicemen. They discovered the irony of fighting to liberate other nations while they were denied liberty in their own country. They were asked to assume the responsibilities of American citizenship without being granted many of the rights. The fuse of social revolution had been lit, and there was no turning back.

ibid., p. 40

In 1946, shortly after his twenty-first birthday, Medgar, his brother Charles, and four other blacks, went to the county clerk's office to register to vote. Despite intimidations by whites and blacks (who wanted to avoid "trouble"), Medgar and Charles Evers and their friends were determined to exercise their right to vote on election day. Upon arriving at the Decatur courthouse, they were greeted by a posse of armed white men.

Faced with this strong deterrent, the group retreated.... 'I made up my mind that it would not be like that again -- at least not for me,' Medgar said later. And it wasn't. The very next year, 1947, they did vote in the county election.

ibid., p. 43.

Medgar finished high school and enrolled at Alcorn State University in 1948, graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1952. On Christmas Eve 1951, he had married Myrlie Beasley, who he had met at Alcorn. Medgar was interviewed and subsequently hired by the Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where the newlyweds moved to in 1952.

Having earlier learned about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Medgar decided that the Mississippi Delta area around Mound Bayou with its predominant population of impoverished black sharecroppers was the ideal place to organize new chapters of the organization. Out of Medgar's fascination with Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Medgar and Myrlie's first son (born in 1953) was christened Darrel Kenyatta Evers. His efforts to recruit more members for the NAACP were fruitful; by late 1953, there were twenty-one NAACP branches (totalling 1,600 members) in Mississippi.

Dr. E. J. Stringer, Mississippi state president of the NAACP, decided that it was time to desegregate the University of Mississippi. Medgar Evers became statewide news in January 1954, when he requested that his Alcorn College transcripts be sent to the University of Mississippi law school.

The Jackson Daily News spelled it out in big, bold letters on January 22, 1954:
The public life of Medgar Evers had begun -- and anyone who wanted to stop him from going to Ole Miss knew his name.

ibid., p. 80.

Evers' application for the fall 1954 term was referred by the State Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning to Mississippi Attorney General James P. Coleman for consideration. Despite the Supreme Court's May 17, 1954 ruling that school segregation was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore illegal under the Constitution, Attorney General Coleman was not willing to give in. In an August 1954 meeting with Evers, Dr. E. R. Jobe (executive secretary of the State Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning), and NAACP lawyer A. P. Tureaud, Coleman questioned the sincerety of Medgar Evers' application.

Was this just a publicity stunt? After all, Evers was twenty-nine (although he had earned his bachelor's degree only two years before) and had taken no law classes at Alcorn (there were none). And why would he not accept an out-of-state scholarship if he wanted so badly to go to law school?

Evers replied that it was only proper that he study law in the state where he intended to practice.

Then Coleman asked if Evers actually planned to live and eat on the campus. Evers replied affirmatively and gave assurance that "I bathe regularly..., I wear clean clothes, and none of the brown of my skin will rub off. I won't contaminate the dormitory or the food."

ibid., p. 89.

In September 1954, three days after the birth of Myrlie and Medgar's second child (a daughter named Rena), the Board of Higher Learning rejected Medgar's application to Ole Miss on the basis of some rather superficial technicalities the board had not told him before his application. The NAACP, impressed with Evers' courage and his recruiting of new members, offered him the newly-created job of state field secretary for Mississippi, a position that Medgar held until his death. The Everses moved to the state capital, Jackson, where the new NAACP office opened on January 23, 1955.

Evers' new responsibilities included school desegregation and voter registration drives, upholding "morale" (urging people not to remove their names from petitions despite threats and intimidations), and investigating every incident of racial trouble that he could.

In this capacity, he was involved in the investigation of the murders of Emmett Till on August 20, 1955 and of Reverend George Lee of the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the NAACP on May 7, 1955. To further publicize these murders, the NAACP published a booklet entitled M is for Mississippi and Murder, containing quotes from racists and segregationists who proclaimed interracial bloodshed to be the logical result of the Supreme Court's May 17, 1954 Brown decision.

White backlash reared its ugly head. In November 1954, an amendment to the Mississippi Constitution was approved, requiring all registered voters to read or write any part of the state constitution (thereby excluding poorly educated blacks). In March 1955, another state law was passed which nullified all voter registrations since January 1, 1954 -- most of Evers' and the NAACP's efforts in that area had been rendered futile.

Because of economic intimidation, NAACP membership and contributions dropped in Mississippi and several branches were forced to accept emergency relief provided by the NAACP's national office.

Former Attorney General James P. Coleman was elected Governor in 1956 and assured the citizenry in his inaugural speech that "when my successor stands on this same spot to assume his official oath, the separation of the races will be left intact..." (ibid., p. 120).

In 1956, when President Eisenhower announced plans to invite Soviet Union leaders to observe America's "free" elections, Evers and the NAACP wrote a letter to the White House reminding Eisenhower that elections were not free in all places and for all people.

They urged Eisenhower to show the Soviets Humphreys County, Mississippi, where George Lee had been murdered and Gus Courts, president of the Belzoni NAACP branch, had been shot because they tried to vote. Mississippi's terror campaign could rival anything that was going on in communist Russia.

ibid., p. 122.

Between 1955 and 1960, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum throughout the South.

It was the era of the Montgomery bus boycotts, the integration confrontation at Little Rock's Central High, and the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King and his non-violent philosophy. College students devised the "sit-in," in which civil rights workers would sit quietly at drugstore lunch counters.... Black students entered the Universities of Alabama and Georgia for the first time. All across the South, blacks realized that they could act to change their world, that there were other ways to deal with racism besides acquiesecence.

ibid., pp. 133-134.

Evers continued his work for the NAACP, organizing a rather successful "buy black" campaign in which blacks supported black entrepreneurship with their purchasing dollars. As part of "Operation Mississippi" "to wipe out segregation in all phases of Mississippi life" Evers and the NAACP's legal team supported James Meredith, who (like Medgar Evers seven years earlier) had applied for enrollment at the University of Mississippi and had been rejected in February 1961. Meredith filed suit in U.S. District Court charging that his rejection had been "solely because of his race."

In February 1962, Judge S. C. Mize... denied that "qualified Negroes" were barred from the university due to "custom or policy." Though no blacks attended Ole Miss, Mize asserted that "the university is not a racially segregated institution."

Meredith turned to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where... it was ordered that he be admitted. Judge John M. Wisdom accused the university of using "a... campaign of delay, harassment, and masterly inactivity" to keep Meredith out.

ibid., pp. 139-140.

In defiance of the court's ruling, Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who had promised that no black would attend the University of Mississippi as long as he was in office, appointed himself university registrar and personally blocked the gate to the Ole Miss campus with the help of four hundred law enforcement officers on September 26, 1962, when James Meredith tried to apply for admission for the third time (after two earlier attempts on September 20 and 25, 1962). Now the Kennedy administration became involved. On Sunday, September 30, 1962, James Meredith was escorted onto the Oxford campus by federal marshals. During the resulting riots, which required the presence of three thousand federal troops to end them, two men (Paul Guilhard, a French reporter, and a bystander) were killed and countless wounded. But James Meredith had finally acchieved Medgar Evers' goal of eight years earlier.

Throughout 1963, Medgar Evers was busy organizing a boycott of Barq's soft drinks, Hart's bread, and McRae's department store because of their support of White Citizens' Councils. In May 1963, the NAACP demanded that the city of Jackson end discrimination in the hiring of city personnel, firemen, and police officers. When Mayor Thompson rejected Evers' proposal of a biracial committee appointed for that purpose and claimed (on television and radio) that this would be "compliance with the demands of racial agitators from outside," Medgar Evers demanded equal time on local television -- and got it on May 20, 1963.

Evers said that the NAACP was not a group of "outside agitators," having been present in Mississippi for more than forty years. He talked about the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in breaking down segregation laws... Evers also said it would take more than time to end Mississippi's racial crisis, which had festered for hundreds of years.

"[The] years of change are upon us," he declared. "In the racial picture things will never be as they once were.... Here in Jackson we can recognize the situation and make an honest effort to bring fresh ideas and new methods to bear...."

ibid., p. 148.

On May 28, 1963, a compromise was reached in a meeting of Mayor Thompson with an NAACP committee. Mayor Thompson agreed to the hiring of blacks as policemen and school crossing guards. All public facilities would become desegregated and "Whites Only" signs taken down. All city officials would address blacks as "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss."

Anne Moody remembers:

But the following day, Thompson denied that he had made any promises. He said the Negro delegation 'got carried away' following their discussion with him.

"It seems as though Mayor Thompson wants to play games with us," Reverend Haughton said at the next rally. "He is calling us liars and trying to make us sound like fools. I guess we have to show him that we mean business."

When Reverend Charles A. Jones... asked at the close of the meeting, "Where do we go from here?" the audience shouted, "To the streets." They were going to prove to Mayor Thompson and the white people of Jackson that they meant business...

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, New York, 1978, p. 275.

Sit-ins and non-violent demonstrations started all over Jackson.

...within four or five days Jackson became the hotbed of racial demonstrations in the South. It seemed as though most of the Negro college and high school students there were making preparations to participate.... An injunction prohibiting demonstrations was issued by a local judge, naming NAACP, CORE, Tougaloo College, and various leaders. According to this injunction, the intent of the named organizations and individuals was to paralyze the economic nerve center of the city.... It used as proof the leaflets that had been distributed by the NAACP urging Negroes not to shop on Capitol Street. The next day the injunction was answered with another mass march.

The cops started arresting every Negro on the scene of a demonstration, whether or not he was was participating.... On Saturday, Roy Wilkins, the National Director of NAACP, and Medgar Evers were arrested as they picketed in front of Woolworth's.

ibid., pp. 275-276.

An interesting facet about Dylan's possible source of the title and "chorus" of his song about the killing of Medgar Evers was pointed out by Craig Jamieson (rcj10@cus.cam.ac.uk) and further researched by Sorabh Saxena (saxena@umbc.edu) on rec.music.dylan, the Internet Dylan discussion group:

The New York Times, in their June 2, 1963 edition, carried an article on Medgar Evers' and Roy Wilkins' arrest on felony charges and their subsequent release after paying a cash bond of $1,000 each. Right next to this article, there's one about a related issue (Alabama Governor Wallace's reaction to black students registering at a white university), in which Wallace is quoted as:

It's going to be the responsibility of the Federal Government to baby-sit students who are not wanted on the University of Alabama campus. The State of Alabama does not have sufficient forces to be guarding every PAWN OF THE N.A.A.C.P.

Craig Jamieson concludes:

It strikes me as typically Dylan to turn a phrase or word of one of his adversaries to his own advantage.

Anne Moody on the last days in Medgar Ever's life:

Mass rallies had come to be an every night event, and at each one the NAACP had begun to build up Medgar Evers. Somehow I had the feeling that they wanted him to become for Mississippi what Martin Luther King had been in Alabama. They were well on the way to achieving that, too.

After the rally on Tuesday, June 11, I had to stay in Jackson.... We were watching TV around twelve-thirty, when a special news bulletin interrupted the program. It said, "Jackson NAACP leader Medgar Evers has just been shot."

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, New York, 1978, p. 276.


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