In the long line of shameful acts of racial injustice in America, countless violent murders of black males incited so much national outrage that activism ensued, each time pushing the country a little closer to justice.
The gruesome 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi, accompanied by his mother’s decision to let his horribly mangled face be photographed in Jet magazine, was quickly followed by Rosa Parks’s fateful refusal to give up her bus seat. Her arrest would mark the beginning of the hugely successful Montgomery bus boycott.
And on June 12, 1963 (57 years ago yesterday), Byron De La Beckwith, a racist with ties to the K.K.K., shot Medgar Evers point-blank outside his home, in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers had been the N.A.A.C.P.’s first Mississippi field secretary and was a World War II veteran, an integration warrior, and a bold leader against racial killings who risked his life finding witnesses to the Till murder. His stunning execution enveloped the black community in grief, fear, and rage, and made national headlines. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attended the burial, held at Arlington National Cemetery with full honors, and the National Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
A third singular killing, of course—in Minneapolis, not Mississippi—was that of George Floyd 19 days ago, leading to historically unparalleled demonstrations against police brutality and systemic injustice aimed at African-Americans.
“Since We Were Babies”
The twin granddaughters of Evers’s older brother, Charles, who is 97 (and was the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, from 1969 to 1981), Corrie and Courtney Cockrell, 39, both attorneys who have spent almost all their lives in Mississippi, have had “Uncle Medgar’s murder instilled in us since we were babies,” Corrie told me when I first interviewed her and her sister 11 and a half years ago in Mississippi, on the cautiously jubilant day before Barack Obama was elected president.
I spoke to the Cockrells on Saturday, June 6, in their hometown of Jackson, just hours after they’d returned home from attending the anti-racism protest march honoring Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Had she lived, Taylor, an emergency medical technician, would have been celebrating her 27th birthday the day before, a detail Corrie and Courtney didn’t fail to note. I had thought the ongoing events would place our conversation in ironic, sharp contrast to our happy talk on the eve of Obama’s election. But the stunning fervor, expanse, and peacefulness of the protests made the Cockrell sisters as encouraging as the subjects we covered were devastating.
“We want to focus on Jackson today,” Corrie says. “It was very heartwarming to see, in the blazing heat, so many people come out.” The Jackson daily newspaper The Clarion-Ledger put the number of people at “thousands,” and the pictures reflect what Courtney saw: “A very diverse crowd. It was so refreshing to see people who didn’t look like us supporting the cause.”
Members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol—black and white—handed out cold water to the protesters, many of whom chanted, “No justice, no peace.” “That small gesture—the water—meant so much: the patrol’s opportunity to engage with the average citizen,” Corrie says. Before setting off, “we didn’t know what to expect, because some of the protests hadn’t remained peaceful, so we were apprehensive. But that first interaction made us feel great! And—everyone wore a mask.”
Members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol handed out cold water to the protesters, many of whom chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
The Cockrells feel that the pandemic played a major role in the attention to Floyd’s murder and the magnitude of the protests. Corrie: “Having a captive audience made a difference. People weren’t watching sports or going to concerts or movies; so what’s available to them? The news and their phones—and that video.” She pauses. “We watched a man die on that video.”
Courtney: “You had so many people watching [Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck], so many people pleading for Floyd while officers just stood guard—when he couldn’t speak for himself. We saw him die, we saw him dead, in the last two minutes, in broad daylight. You would think we were past that!” Corrie continues, “It was so gut-wrenching, watching a grown man plead for his mother.” Courtney: “He was already handcuffed, so no one could say a man was putting the officer’s life at risk. And we all saw that. It made people feel that they had to come forward.”
Similarly, “When I saw the video [of the Arbery killing], it struck me as something we had progressed from: being hunted down. Treated worse than an animal!,” Courtney says. The saddest part of all, she notes, is that “without the video, we would not have known.” To make matters worse, “the video was released in an attempt to help” the killers’ cause. “It was heartbreaking and unbelievable.”
The sisters also call attention to Taylor, who was shot dead with at least eight police bullets after they rammed their way through her locked door when she was in bed—“It was frightening!” Corrie says. “That could be anybody in their home with their door locked; there was no way to prevent that”—and to another horrible crime I hadn’t heard of: Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Texas woman shot by police responding to a neighbor’s call regarding an “open exterior door” at her Fort Worth home. Her eight-year-old nephew stood nearby. “It could easily have been me,” Corrie says. “We have a niece and little cousins around all the time.”
Unlike in the Floyd and Arbery cases (the latter murder went two months without the arrest of the two main assailants and another two weeks before the arrest of the third), at the time of publication the three officers in the three-month-old Taylor killing had not been arrested.
History Repeats Itself
Corrie and Courtney’s grandfather “is a passionate, sensitive man who never got over the loss of his brother. Every year when he talks at the memorial ‘homecomings’”—commemorations of Evers’s murder, today’s taking place in a scaled-down manner, because of coronavirus concerns—“he talks as if his brother is still alive, reminiscing how, as kids, the “defiant Evers boys” would be chased away from “Whites Only” water fountains.
As a child, the twins’ mother, Carolyn, was not immune to risk, either. “In those scary times, when they were all living in fear,” Corrie said, “Uncle Medgar used to come over under cover of darkness to visit our mom; otherwise he could put her in harm.” Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, now 87, a lifelong eminence in civil rights, told me, just before Trump’s election—in the midst of her emotional memories of the danger her husband had faced—that “we taught the kids how to fall on the floor if they heard sounds indicating gunfire. We’d play, ‘Where is the safest place to hide?’ They chose the bathroom tub.... The tension and fear and anger and scheming to change things and survive, we lived that every day.”
Growing up in the Mississippi that their granduncle’s bravery and martyrdom helped change, Courtney and Corrie had a much easier time, though reminders of what their family had gone through interceded at stunning intervals. “One day when we were about seven,” Courtney told me, “our father popped his two front teeth out. We hadn’t known those teeth were false! ‘Why don’t you have real teeth, Daddy?’ we asked him. He said in the mid-60s he was assaulted for being [one of] the first to integrate an all-white high school. His appearance was permanently altered just for trying to do what anybody had a right to do: go to school.” That high school, Jackson’s Murrah, was the one that Courtney and Corrie would attend. “Murrah High School had turned predominately black by then”—in 1995—“but there were white kids who went there, from open-minded families.”
“We taught the kids how to fall on the floor if they heard sounds indicating gunfire.”
A year before the twins started high school, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted by an inclusive jury of murdering Evers, after two all-white juries had failed to reach a verdict in earlier trials. (The murderers in the Emmett Till case were acquitted almost instantly by an all-white-male jury; they then accepted money from Look magazine to admit they had killed Till.) “Beckwith was someone we’d lived with since we were born,” Courtney told me. “He didn’t cower away. He was remorseless.” Thirty-one years after he killed Evers, in a supposedly very changed Mississippi, Beckwith “smirked when he showed how to fire a rifle” during an interview. Corrie: “You could still see the hatred in Beckwith’s face after all those years. To see how far we’d come as a people, and yet this man still harbored so much hatred!”
She continued, “How can you hate someone for something that person has no control over?”
Still, they’ve seen the arc of progress and are proud of it. At the University of Mississippi at Oxford (Ole Miss), where Corrie attended law school and Courtney received a second bachelor’s degree, there’s a plaque honoring their granduncle Medgar: the same man who had unsuccessfully tried to integrate it before James Meredith marched past a mob of violent white protesters, protected by the National Guard, which had been called by President Kennedy, shortly before Evers was killed, in 1963. And more than a decade ago, the law professor John Bradley and his family set up the Medgar Evers Scholarship, which has since grown to $300,000 and awarded scholarships to nine students. “The gesture was nothing short of phenomenal,” Corrie says.
When asked who they’d like to see as Biden’s running mate, Courtney says, “Someone who is ready to do the job, regardless of gender or race. Someone who can step right into that role: a fresh voice that can be there for all of us.” The 57th annual memorial to Medgar Evers’s assassination is being held today. A wreath will be laid outside of Evers’s 1963 house, though the usual motorcade will be toned down, with participants not leaving their cars, in order to maintain social distancing.
But it will be one of the most important celebrations in the country’s long line of them, at an unprecedentedly unique, challenging, yet exultantly hopeful time.
Sheila Weller is a journalist and the author of eight books, including, most recently, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge