Medgar Evers and Jewish Memory
On the anniversary of the activist’s assassination
Yesterday, officials across the country marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP official and civil rights activist, who was shot in his Mississippi driveway just hours after President John F. Kennedy delivered his landmark speech on civil rights. As Peniel Joseph wrote on Monday:
Kennedy’s announcement that he would introduce comprehensive civil rights legislation and spur school desegregation beyond its frustratingly glacial pace gave teeth to his historic address.
Kennedy’s speech was almost immediately overshadowed by Evers’s murder. Two months later the March on Washington would further render it a forgotten artifact of the civil rights movement’s heroic period.
One of the first and most famous tributes to emerge from the killing of Evers was Bob Dylan’s song Only a Pawn in Their Game, which would later be performed at the March on Washington along with speeches by priests, rabbis, pastors, union leaders, and the Big Six. Yesterday, NPR ran a story about Dylan’s song, interviewing Princeton professor Sean Wilentz.
In the wake of such a tragic event, the song was a unique undertaking — one that aimed to communicate and understand what was taking place in the killer’s mind.
“It wasn’t a song that played naturally into the moral geometry of the civil rights movement, you know, which was very much about the righteous civil rights workers — black and white — against an obdurate segregationist system,” Wilentz says. “This dug a little deeper and made people think a little bit more. … He’s giving you the sound of what it’s like to have your brain screaming because you’re down, because you’re poor.”
In this way (my thoughts, not Wilentz’s), the song echoed Kennedy’s speech, which sought to address civil rights as a broader cultural movement that needed tending instead of a response to the heinous acts and viewpoints of specific individuals in a specific region. Jews who were active in the civil rights era knew this as well as the fact that the forces that sought to keep America locked in segregation and Jim Crow also meant to do many people harm, not just African-Americans.
To drive the point home: While Evers’ assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, managed to escape justice for many years after the killing—he skated on two hung juries in 1964 before finally being convicted in 1994—he did go to jail in 1977 for conspiring to commit murder. This time, his target was A.I. Botnick, an official with the Anti-Defamation League.