Medgar Evers' life and death reminds us how recent blatant, violent racism is in America

It just wasn't that long ago.

After thinking I'd studied the Civil Rights Movement at least slightly more in depth than the average American, I'm embarrassed to say that Medgar Evers' name didn't ring a bell when I saw it. I'd probably heard or read his name at some point, but without enough detail about his life to stick in my brain—until now.

A post by Steven Pokin about his visit to Medgar Evers' home in Jackson, Mississippi has captivated the attention of thousands, and put Evers' story front and center in many people's minds. And honestly, that's where it should be. This hero of the Civil Rights Movement deserves to have his story told, remembered, and learned from.


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Pokin's post shows a photograph of two twin-sized mattresses on the floor of a bedroom with stuffed animals resting on the pillows. It reads:

This is where the two little sons of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers slept. When he had this house built in Jackson, Mississippi, he had the window you see elevated to make it less likely his children would be shot.

He had the house built without a front door for security reasons. The main entrance was at the side of the house, at the end of a car port.

His house was the only one on the street that had small stones and gravel on a flat roof. That way, it would not catch fire is someone tossed a lit torch on the roof.

He had his children's mattresses placed directly on the floor to make them less visible targets.
He told his wife and children to sit on the floor while watching TV.

In 1963, he was the NAACP's first Mississippi field director. Three times that year, someone had fired into his home.

As a boy, he had witnessed the separate lynchings of a black man and a 10-year-old black boy — who had made the mistake of going to the whites-only county fair.

On June 10, he was not home when someone tried to enter through the rear door of his home. His wife moved the refrigerator to block the entry. They left the refrigerator there.

That week, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke to the nation about civil rights, justice and a more perfect union. The President said it was coming and he asked the nation to give him time that, ultimately, he did not have.

Medgar Evers gave a speech in Jackson the night of June 11,1963. He returned home — to this home — lugging many T-shirts that he planned to give out at a rally the next day. They said: "Say No to Jim Crow."

He was excited about the President's speech.

He parked behind his wife's car in the driveway and was almost in the car port when an assassin across the street shot him with a high-powered rifle.

No ambulance came.

A neighbor took him to the whites-only hospital. Doctors were unsure if they should treat him. They were out of "Negro blood" and feared they could lose their medical licenses if they used white blood to try to save a black man.

Then, a white doctor stepped in and said none of that mattered and worked valiantly to try to save the life of Medgar Evers, who had served this country at the invasion of Normandy.

He died about 40 minutes after being shot.

The bullet entered his back, came out his chest, went through a window, went through an interior wall leading to the kitchen and left a dent in the refrigerator.

I touched that dent today. Then, I went into the bedroom and saw the mattresses on the floor with the Teddy Bears on them.

I have never before felt history the way I felt it today.

After reading this post, I researched Medgar Evers a bit more. Not only is the tragic story of his assassination true, but it was another 31 years before his killer was brought to justice. It's not that they didn't know who the murderer was—it was that two all-white juries had deadlocked on whether or not to find him guilty.

Evers was murdered in 1963. That's the year my mother graduated from high school, a mere 12 years before I was born. My grandmother, who is still alive, was 38. This is modern, recent history.

And it's not like his assassination was a one-off fluke. He built his damn house with this very real possibility in mind. Can you imagine people shooting bullets into the house where you live with your children not once, not twice, but three times? Can you imagine your family having to watch TV on the floor because people wanted you dead simply for advocating for equal rights?

Too often, the dominant narrative of civil rights history downplays the violent, virulent backlash against it. We get the feel-good "I Have a Dream" speech and forget that Martin Luther King, Jr. was viewed by many as a dangerous radical. We celebrate the passage of the Civil Rights Act and forget that almost 100% of Senators and Representatives from the eleven former confederate states—both Republicans and Democrats—voted against it.

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And those people—both the ones who wanted civil rights leaders dead and the ones who voted against the legal rights for which they risked their lives—didn't just miraculously change their minds on race simply because the law changed. Some may have had a change of heart over the years—it's entirely possible—but not all. Some of those people are still alive today with kids and grandkids that they passed their racist hatred onto. Some of their descendants may have rejected their racism—some, but not all.

I see so many people claim that racism is no longer an issue in America—that people who bring up race and racism do so as a political talking point as opposed to a deeply ingrained reality affecting people's daily lives. But two generations of my family who are still alive were grown adults when a white supremacist killed Medgar Evers. Two generations of my family who are still alive were adults when well-respected white supremacists (which should be an oxymoron, but wasn't then) in the community covered for him. There's no way we have weeded out that disease from our society when this is our modern history.

I mean, it hasn't even been an entire lifetime since a decent percentage of white people would lose their mind if a black person used the same drinking fountain as them. We have video documentation of hotel owners pouring bleach into their swimming pools while black people swam in them because they performed the sin of putting their bodies into the same water that white people used.

How far do you have to dehumanize someone to refuse to touch the same water as them? How low do you have to consider black people that you think those who ask for equality deserve to be killed? That's not just racial prejudice; it's violent, racist hatred. It's blatant white supremacy. And it wasn't that long ago, America.

It just wasn't that long ago.

Heroes

On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

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Young people today are facing what seems to be greater exposure to complex issues like mental health, bullying, and youth violence. As a result, teachers are required to be well-versed in far more than school curriculum to ensure students are prepared to face the world inside and outside of the classroom. Acting as more than teachers, but also mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders, they must be equipped with practical and relevant resources to help their students navigate some of the more complicated social issues – though access to such tools isn't always guaranteed.

Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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