Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Two Powerful Songs in Response to the Cold-Blooded Murder of Medgar Evers

On this day in history civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated. Born July 2, 1925, in Decatur, Mississippi he became, in 1954, the first state field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. As such, he organized voter-registration efforts and economic boycotts, and investigated crimes perpetrated against blacks. For these "subversive" activities he was assassinated outside his Mississippi home 55 years ago today. It took more than three decades to send his killer to prison. Such were the machinations of Mississippi justice.

Evers served in World War II from 1943 to '45 and returned, like many other African Americans of his generation, to see the Jim Crow South with new eyes. He graduated college on the G.I. Bill and soon became involved with civil rights work. In 1954 he came field secretary for the NAACP, travelling extensively throughout the state, a witness to the widespread injustices that were a way of life there. For context, 1954 was the year of the landmark legislation Brown v. Board of Education, 1955 the death of Emmett Till.

After years of organizing and standing up to the powers that be, "Evers's efforts made him a target for those who opposed racial equality and desegregation. He and his family were subjected to numerous threats and violent actions, including a firebombing of his house in May 1963, shortly before his assassination."(1)

* * * *
August 28, less than two months later, proved to be one of the most memorable days in our history as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington for jobs and freedom, galvanizing the civil rights movement with his epic "I Have A Dream" speech, which reverberates to this day.  A young Bob Dylan was one of many singers who had been invited to perform at the event.(2) Even though he'd just released his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, with a number of suitable songs for the occasion ("Blowin' in the Wind" and "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" come to mind) he sang three songs from his next album, including "Only A Pawn In Their Game" which he'd written in response to the shooting of Medgar Evers.

It's not possible for me to hear this song without being moved, and for decades I felt it to be the most powerful response ever written in response to Evers' assassination. Eventually, thanks to the Internet, I discovered Nina Simone's response to this and everything taking place in Mississippi at that time, a song which -- for reasons self-evident -- would not have been aired on the radio stations most of us listened to while growing up in the Sixties. It's called "Mississippi Goddam."(3)

The chorus, which also opens the song, goes like this:
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam

Lyrics like these reflect the burden of being black in the Deep South at that time:

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time

I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer
Don't tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying 'Go slow!'

It's a painful song, but its despairing tone reflects a strange beauty that I find incredibly moving. 


Like Dylan's "Only A Pawn" it's the manner in which the song is sung that goes right through you. Let's mark the day by remembering. 

(1) Medgar Evers life at Biography
(2) Music of the March on Washington
(3) Full lyrics, Mississippi Goddam

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