Reviewed by Chris Timmons
Medgar Evers should be of interest to anyone who has examined the racial history of the United States, and of the South. It’s too bad he is now near-forgotten.
Undoubtedly, general American forgetfulness has much to do with it; as far as history goes, Americans do not have much memory. Nor is memory treated with a great deal of deference as in old civilizations such as Europe.
America is a young babe among modern nations; and with that there’s the avoidance of a sober, adult view of the burdens of history and historical remembrance.
Forgetting is easy when all the world is open to you, when idealism and hubris are admixed, intoxicating and making everything blithe—e.g., America’s almost uninterrupted history of economic and cultural triumph.
Aside from that, it is the South’s inability, perhaps, to confront its own history squarely that serves as the larger problem, in Medgar Evers’s case, anyway.
Nevertheless, Evers’s assassination was epochal, which may come off as hyperbole.
There are few epochal events in American history: the American Revolution, Constitutional Convention, the Presidential Election of 1800, the Civil War, Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the end of the Cold War.
Lastly, the Civil Rights Movement.
Here’s where Medgar Evers comes in: He was the great transitional figure between the NAACP’s tepid method of courtroom litigation (although, admittedly, tepid is relative here, especially with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision serving as its crown jewel) and the non-violent protest movement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) that was to come.
In his role as the NAACP’s representative in Mississippi, Evers would guide, collaborate, and serve as the mediating presence for a host of a well-meaning civil rights advocates and groups.
Before any of this, he had to graduate from college, get married, go off to the war in Europe and fight off the Nazis, come back and raise a family, and sell insurance to keep his family housed and fed.
Only after, traveling through Jackson County rural ghettos to sell insurance policies in the early 1950s, could he see the way racism fed off ignorance and poverty.
That would certify his determination and lead him to assume his role as field secretary for the NAACP, documenting the countless incidents and everyday terms of racial apartheid in Mississippi.
This is important to keep in mind when reading Minrose Gwin’s Remembering Medgar Evers, which because it is not a standard biography, tells you of these things only in passing.
Some book titles are beguiling; others shocking, or amusing. Gwin’s title comes off as plain and uninspired, but you have been forewarned, it holds many shades of meaning.
Of course, remembering is many faceted. Gwin, an academic and novelist, explores Evers’s legacy through several literary and popular reactions to his assassination at the hands of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in June of 1963, two months before the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pivotal “I Have A Dream Speech.”
She uses poems, short stories, musical lyrics, and even a movie or two, which feature Medgar Evers as the overriding presence, guiding spirit, and/or cameo character.
So there’s one meaning behind the title: Literature or artistic work, popular and literary, can crystallize impressions; in this case, it fossilizes a period and place and its concerns; it is sociology handsomely without data sets and given a universal quality—it is human and elemental. This faith in the power of art to provide meaning is an attractive aspect of Gwin’s book, notwithstanding its various flaws (to be noted soon enough).
Gwin’s view of the South is nothing short of scathing. That is to be expected: an academic is nothing if not militantly left-wing. The South for the academic must be a place of wickedness and backwardness.
In her various uses of the stories and poems, from Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From” to Frank X. Walker’s collection of poems Turn Me Loose, Gwin has no reprieve in mind for the South.
The South is the setting for violence and despair, and it is held responsible for what Gwin calls “cultural trauma”—this being, more or less, the South’s horrid treatment from the pre-dawn of the Civil Rights Movement to the present of black Americans and its affect through several generations: the various “ails” of modern black life.
But Gwin attempts to explain why, in all its evil, Evers remained so attached to Mississippi.
It is not exactly revealing, but here you go: For Evers, Mississippi was something to be cherished; it was his home; but his ambivalence toward it had to do with its cruel and pitiless racism.
Gwin takes two terms from Eudora Welty to describe this, and threads them throughout the narrative and each selected literary text: “the heart’s field” and “crossroad of circumstance.”
For it seems, Evers’s high valuation of the local—his “heart’s field” and his agony over the difficult terrain of southern and local racism—”crossroad of circumstance” was the great motivation, according to Gwin, of his activism.
Furthermore, Gwin submits that “aesthetic production,” i.e., those above-mentioned stories or literary texts, aid cultural or historical memory and bring a level of honesty and poignancy to it that allows it to stand as the great interpreter of a time and place and region and attitudes: in the end, what Evers’s legacy is supposed to mean.
The way Gwin uses Eudora Welty’s mistaken assumptions about assassin Beckwith’s class situation in her short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From” and how it implicates and indicts an entire class and region, or James Baldwin’s horror as a cosmopolitan man at Mississippi’s racial dystopia, and his minor portrait of it in “Blues for Mister Charlie,” is an example thereof.
But things go awry in Gwin’s appraisal when she attempts to inject her rather crude and cringe-inducing liberal politics. Above all, it is problematic because it has no material connection to Medgar Evers’s life. But she insists on saying (or quoting) foolish things, anyway: “The movement’s [civil rights] meaning has been distorted and reified by a New Right.”
It is also part of her misguided attempt to broaden Evers’s historical importance by tying his efforts in Mississippi to an “ongoing civil rights movement” that “surges” forward in time.
What makes Evers important is not his current utility as a figure in some vaguely defined global “human rights” struggle, but as a symbol of what American persistence, dignity, and eloquence means, and what it aspires to, or has throughout American history.
This should be clear to Gwin. Alas, it is not.
In her meta-analysis, which is exhausting and exhaustive, Gwin shows how racist/racialist southern papers such as the Jackson Daily News/Jackson Clarion-Ledger would cater to their editors’ and readers’ prejudice by slanting the headlines or using images to advance a theme that was negative, baldly racist, neglectful or celebratory, in their coverage of Medgar Evers’s assassination and life.
Gwin uses this to advance the ways in which memory can be falsified and corrupted; and how it transfers those references and associations forward into the future. In this case, the erasure of Medgar Evers as a standing memory in Mississippi and the South—that is, outside of the airport or buildings in his name.
Essentially, he is no longer a living presence outside of these past stories (Eudora Welty), or contemporary poems and movies (Frank Walker, The Help) that serve at once to memorialize, preserve, and keep his legacy alive.
All of which is regrettable.
His legacy, which Remembering Medgar Evers loses sight of, time and again, is not some blatantly phony struggle for global human rights, which likely are contemporary liberal political causes masquerading as the genuine article anyhow, and has little to do with situating this great man’s place in American history.
In a way, Gwin has forgotten the Medgar Evers of his own Autobiography. The South may have tried to ring itself of his legacy, but there it remains.
What Medgar Evers’s believed in was the American Dream, the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” the potent and original claim of the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal”—for which he fought gallantly against Nazis and Klansmen, to make true and everlasting.
That’s to say, Gwin misses the point.
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