Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Bullet from the Back of a Bush.

50 years ago today, a bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.

Although Evers is only dimly remembered compared to his contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., & Malcolm X, he was well-known in his time as a Civil Rights leader & NAACP field secretary (the first in Mississippi) who fought to overturn segregation in the University of Mississippi.

But it was the desegregation of another college that led to the circumstances of Evers' death.  On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy sent the National Guard to protect two African American students who had enrolled in the University of Alabama.  That evening, Kennedy made a national address that marked a turning point in Civil Rights. "We preach freedom around the world, & we mean it, & we cherish our freedom here at home;" Kennedy said, "but are we to say to the world, &, much more importantly, for each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?"

In the early morning hours following the speech on June 12, 1963, Evers was returning to his home in Jackson, Mississippi, after meeting with NAACP lawyers.  In his hands were a stack of NAACP T-shirts that said "Jim Crow Must Go."

A bullet was fired from an Enfield 1917 rifle, hitting him in the back, & ricocheting into his house.  Evers staggered a few feet & collapsed on his front lawn.  He was taken to a local hospital & died within an hour, less than a month before his 38th birthday.

* * *

Like Joe Hill or John Brown, Medgar Evers' death was immortalized in many gestures large & small--the Life cover story about his funeral; a key plot point in the smash film & book The Help; even in an episode of the '70s sitcom Good Times, when some FBI agents visit the Walker home & are asked by young activist Michael who killed Medgar Evers to the audience's applause ("We're working on it," is the FBI agent's answer, to the audience's laughter).

But as a matter of fact, someone had been tried for Evers' death--fertilizer salesman & member of the White Citizens' Council (& later the Ku Klux Klan)--Byron De La Beckwith, although two mostly-white juries resulted in deadlocked verdicts.  Three decades later, new evidence emerged (not the least of which was De La Beckwith's own bragging in the years between), & he was found guilty in early 1994.  De La Beckwith tried unsuccessfully to appeal & would die in jail at the age of 80 in early 2001.

All of which is interesting & telling, but fails to bring us closer to Medgar Evers, the person.  Perhaps because he died so early & so young, Evers remains elusive in a way that both King & Malcolm feel more complete--as I unintentially demonstrated above, in talking about Evers we often end up talking around him (his times) than talking about him (his life).

Perhaps the greatest tribute of all is also the most telling--Bob Dylan's early folk song "The Ballad of Medgar Evers," which he shrewdly renamed "Only a Pawn in Their Game," perhaps because he realized that Evers only appears at its first & last verses:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain.
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,” they explain.
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
’Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ’neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain:
Only a pawn in their game

Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game" is perhaps the ultimate tribute to Evers because it is the ultimate statement around him (as opposed to about him).  Evers is the inspiration, framing the song like a Greek epic, but disappearing in the middle three verses that examine the social scenario that led him to be shot in the first place.

As a work of economy & complexity, it is a masterpiece; for my money, Dylan never wrote a better song in his early folk period.  It is less about one man's murder as it is the entire social structure that led to that murder, a staggering undertaking pulled off in a mere five verses.

In its own way, the song is as much about Medgar Evers as it is about Byron De La Beckwith, & system that manipulated him into becoming a murderer in the first place.  There comes from the narrative something like sympathy for De La Beckwith's position, but in the end it is just cold rationale.

The song ties Evers & De La Beckwith together in a gesture of good & evil, famous & infamous, black & white--&, if there's any doubt as to where the singer's sympathies ultimately lie--King & Pawn.

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