‘The Word Is Free’ : For the three children of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, the conviction of their father’s murderer after 30 years has finally ended a lifetime in limbo. Quietly, each is fulfilling their father’s dreams by living out their own.
Darrell Kenyatta Evers remembers vividly the night his father, Medgar Evers, was killed.
“My sister and my brother and my mother were watching TV, sitting on the bed,” he said.
The date was June 12, 1963. The family was at home in Jackson, Miss., watching President John F. Kennedy talk about a “moral crisis” in America, explaining to the country the precepts that would become the Civil Rights Act a year later. It was late and the kids were being allowed to wait up for their father, a rare treat in the Evers household.
“My father pulled up in the driveway,” Darrell said. “We were ready to greet him, because every time he came home it was special for us. He was traveling a lot at that time. All of a sudden we heard a shot. We knew what it was.”
The children hit the floor as they had practiced with their father. Duck-and-cover drills were a part of life for black people in the South who were active in the civil rights movement. The Evers home had been attacked twice previously and nobody was taking any chances.
“My mother went to the front door to see what was wrong,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, I heard her start screaming.”
Evers, who was carrying a load of “Jim Crow Must Go” sweat shirts in his arms, had just come back from a civil rights rally when he was shot by a gunman hiding in a honeysuckle thicket near his driveway. The bullet went through him and into the house, and the gunman got away.
The shot that killed Medgar Evers, a 38-year-old NAACP field secretary, resonated throughout America. It galvanized many into action, including Myrlie Evers, who picked up where her husband left off. But the ones for whom it perhaps rang loudest were Evers’ three children.
It was they who saw their father for the last time bleeding on the front porch.
It was they who had to live in a spotlight they didn’t create as they were splashed all over the nation’s front pages in the days after the attack.
And it was they who were forced to endure the 30-year legal struggle that ended only last month when a Mississippi jury decided that avowed segregationist Byron de la Beckwith, now 73, was indeed the man who shot their father in the back. Twice before, all-white juries had failed to reach a verdict in the murder case.
“The fact that we’ve all survived with the degree of sanity that we have is a miracle,” Myrlie Evers, now 61, said by phone from her home in Oregon. “My children are survivors. When I look back, their lives could have easily taken a different path. They are a credit to their father. And they are my crowning achievement.”
Darrell was 9 when his father was killed. Reena was 8. And James Van Dyke, known as “Van,” was only 3. Against the backdrop of Myrlie Evers’ activism, in the dim light of an endless court battle, the three children have quietly taken care of each other and persevered.
All three now live in Southern California and keep in close contact with their mother, who settled in Los Angeles after the shooting and began a civic career that included a stint as a Public Works Commissioner and an unsuccessful run for city council. She is now semi-retired and married to Walter Williams, her husband of 18 years.
“We’re connected by spirit,” Van said. “There are no words for it.”
In recent interviews, the Evers children talked of dealing with their father’s death differently.
“It’s my father that got taken away,” said Reena Evers-Everett, who works for an airline. “We all had a special relationship with Daddy. You never get over losing a parent.”
Small remembrances are a part of it. Reena named her eldest son Daniel Medgar Evers Everett. Darrell uses his middle name, Kenyatta, because his father gave it to him in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya and a noted author.
“It was supposed to be my (first) name,” he said. “My mother switched it to Darrell before it became official.”
But coping with the loss--and the accompanying expectations--are a significantly larger part.
As the oldest, there were many who expected Darrell, now 40, to jump into his father’s shoes and take up the fight. Many, including family members, say he even looks like his father.
However, the days immediately following the shooting revealed a great deal to Darrell, who is a conceptual artist and a computer consultant at the Time Warner Interactive Group.
“As I was going out (of our house), I saw my father lying down in the driveway in a pool of blood,” he said. “I had a deep spiritual experience. I felt a power of soul like I had never felt before . . . it was undeniable. At that point, I knew my father wasn’t that body that everybody recognized as Medgar Evers. He was something else that was much bigger.
“The next day, all these people were over at our house. The cameras were there and everything was chaotic. I got my bike and started riding up and down the street. That was my closest memory of my father being with me--the fact that he used to race me up and down the street . . . one misguided person misunderstood what I was doing and asked me, ‘How can you ride your bike during this time?’ It really turned me in. I really got turned off to a lot of people and formalities.”
Darrell cried for the first time over his father’s death at the funeral service before Evers’ veteran’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery. His picture ran on the cover of Life magazine.
Despite the pressure to take up his father’s work, Darrell realized he was not an activist.
“That was a major thing I had to deal with growing up,” he said. “Everyone expected me to be Medgar Evers Jr. and that just wasn’t my cup of tea. . . . I had tons of guilt. I had to summon up the strength to be my own person. I couldn’t live my father’s dream. . . . I was living the dream he told me I had a right to live.”
Rather than activism, Darrell has chosen to speak through his artwork. He has painted the mural-sized portrait of Nelson Mandela in the Armory Building in Exposition Park. He also drew fire recently for a piece that used a police baton as an eyepiece to a camera displaying the Rodney King beating.
While Darrell relied on his art, his sister worked through traditional channels.
“There was a lot of pressure on all of us to live up to what my father was doing,” said Reena, 39. “We were thrown into an adult world. You were expected at that point to take the torch and run with it and to run with it just like he did. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure.
“I rode with it, I took it. I tried to do what I thought others expected of me. Then I stopped.”
The halt was abrupt and coincided roughly with the date of Beckwith’s conviction. These days, Reena’s phone number is no longer listed.
“I had to take a step back and see what steps I wanted to take, what road I wanted to go down,” she said.
The trial in Jackson, which she attended with Darrell and her mother, was a big part of it.
“Going back was scary,” she said. “It was real painful. I was able to escape a lot of feelings that I had locked inside. I had to go back. There was no question. A lot of people . . . did not want me to go. I had to go back for me. I wanted to open this door, let it out and then hopefully close the door.”
Was the mission accomplished?
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “A big part of it. There are several doors, like Pandora’s boxes inside my heart. I would say that three-fourths of them have been opened, cleaned out and closed. I’m not sure how far I have to go. But it’s almost indescribable--the release that comes over you, the lightness that comes over you, the fulfillment. God said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Both Reena and Darrell gave the same reason for actually going to the court proceedings: They both wanted to look Beckwith in the eye.
“The main reason I wanted to be there is because I wanted him to see me; I wanted him to see my father looking at him,” Darrell said. “And so I stared at him and we had a big stare down. I stared him down until he broke. But it was a long stare. That was the only way I could reach out and touch that man.”
Said Reena: “I wanted to look at him. And what I saw, I won’t reveal. I don’t hate him. But all the old feelings came up, all the negatives came into play, all the emotions. And all the injustice.”
Though Beckwith remains in jail, one of his court-appointed attorneys, Merrida Coxwell, said an appeal will be launched based on constitutional issues and “errors made during the trial.” Though Beckwith is serving a life sentence, Mississippi law makes him eligible for parole in 10 years.
Whatever the outcome of the appeal, Myrlie said the conviction was good for her family, bringing them closer together. “For all of us, it has been very liberating,” Myrlie said. "(We) tried to come up with a word for it and the word is free. It’s given us a degree of peace, which is something we have been wishing for for a very long time.”
From the amount of letters she received, Myrlie said there were people nationwide of all colors who felt the same way.
Van, the youngest at 34, was not able to attend the trial. But his contribution to the conviction was significant. In 1992, it was Van who took over the reins when Medgar’s body was exhumed in the hunt for evidence.
“I never got a good look at my father, so that was mine to go experience,” Van said. “To see him was as much a joyful release as the trial. I got to meet him up close, face to face.”
Van, too, has heard the call of the activist life, but prefers to work for change within his field, photographing advertisements that are racially and culturally balanced. He said there were frustrations that came with being the youngest, with having to rely on feelings rather than images to remember.
“I didn’t get to know him as much, I didn’t get the physical bond,” Van said. “That’s frustrating and upsetting. Maybe we would have fought. Maybe we would have argued. Who knows? There are a lot of maybes involved.”
Though not attending the trial hit him hard, overall Van said he has come to accept the role his family plays.
“I’ve grown to understand that that’s my life,” he said. “It was given to me and I can’t change that. It’s a strength, it’s not a shackle. I would have loved to know my father, but I wouldn’t change the way we are. Everyone in the family loves each other and will be there, that means everything to me.”
However, Van said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about or even speak to his father--a thought echoed by his brother and sister.
“It’s a good feeling,” Reena said. “You always know who your guardian angel is.”