Levees Not War
Rebuilding New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast.

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica

06/12/13

MedgarEvers_02281Conservatives’ rejection of all things “public” as “white flight”

“The gifts of God . . . should 
be enjoyed by 
all citizens in Mississippi.”  Medgar Evers (1925–1963)

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Fifty years ago today, Medgar Wylie Evers was killed in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, after returning from an NAACP meeting at a nearby church. Evers, a graduate of Alcorn A&M whose application to the University of Mississippi law school was rejected on racial grounds, had served as the NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi since 1954. One of his tasks was an investigation of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. He was one of the first members of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC, est. 1957). The assassination of Medgar Evers was commemorated in Bob Dylan’s song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964) and more recently in season three of Mad Men. Evers, who had served in the U.S. Army in France in World War II and was honorably discharged as a sergeant, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

It was late on the night of June 11, and the killer was hiding behind a bush. Myrlie Evers found her husband on the front steps where he had managed to drag himself after being shot in the back. His car keys were still in his hands, and in his arms was a stack of T-shirts reading JIM CROW MUST GO. For thirty years the murder went unprosecuted (a trial in 1964 ended with a hung jury), until Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994. Throughout the 1994 trial De La Beckwith wore a Confederate flag on his lapel. MyrlieEvers@LIFE

On the night her husband was assassinated, Mrs. Evers and her children were watching a televised address to the nation by President John F. Kennedy in response to recent civil rights events, including Alabama Governor George Wallace’s refusal to allow two black students to register at the University of Alabama. (The president announced, “I am . . . asking the Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public—hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments.”)

In an excellent 10-minute overview of the Jim Crow (segregated, apartheid) South into which Medgar Evers was born, and of early civil rights protests such as the lunch counter sit-ins, Rachel Maddow last night mentioned that, rather than cooperate with the legislation that ordered integration of schools and other public facilities, many white southerners opted to withdraw from desegregated public society. (“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” as George Wallace put it.)

Rachel explained:

The southern part of the United States was forced to abolish its segregation laws. But it was a bloody, bloody fight. Throughout the old Confederacy, white people were asked, first as a matter of conscience, and then finally they were ordered as a matter of justice, to integrate on racial lines. And when the white people who had control of the laws and the government and the schools and the businesses, when the fight to hold on to segregation laws was a lost fight, and they knew they had no choice but to integrate the society they lived in, in many cases, instead of going through with that and living through that kind of change, a lot of them just decided to quit that society, they gave up public pools and public schools and in some cases movie theaters. They gave up whole cities and moved away. They called it white flight. The census from 1960 records a Jackson, Mississippi, that was majority white, almost two to one. By 1990 Jackson’s population had made the turn toward getting much smaller and it was much blacker. By 2010 Jackson, Mississippi, had become the second most African American city in the nation. White people in the previously legally segregated South, and really across the nation, abandoned places rather than see them change. [bold = LNW’s emphasis]

White Flight
Sokol

From Orleans Parish, for example, tens of thousands fled to Metairie and Kenner in nearby Jefferson Parish. All over the South, public pools were closed, schools lost white students and teachers, theaters were closed. The middle class and affluent tax base withered, so all facilities and programs needing public funding were at a loss. For a while, to some extent, federal money helped supplement what was dwindling from local coffers. We all know the story. (For more on white southerners’ responses to the advances of civil rights, read Jason Sokol’s excellent There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945–1975.)

Rachel Maddow’s comment above constituted just one paragraph in a larger overview, but it helps us understand the rejection of the public sphere that conservatives have made into a matter of hard-core principle over the last fifty years, and with increasing intensity during Barack Obama’s presidency. Win friends and influence people by appealing to voters’ resentments. That is how they get away with slashing, filibustering, or otherwise denying—even during a time of high unemployment, widespread suffering, and (deliberately) strangled economic recovery—government expenditures that are meant to benefit everybody.

Recall the Republicans’ stubborn opposition to the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus* bill) in early 2009, one-third of which was tax cuts intended to win GOP votes; or the permanent campaign against health care reform, aka “Obamacare”—officially, for those who may have forgotten, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the industrious, Republican-led House of Representatives has voted some 39 times to abolish. And think of all the “principled” Republican rejections of federal money that would, could help cover Medicaid, or FEMA-funded tornado shelters in Oklahoma; of stimulus money for rail projects spurned by GOP governors in Louisiana and Florida (among other places), and potential funding that could pay for other public needs. (At least for public show: see “Republicans Secretly (Seriously) Like the Stimulus” and “Public Works in a Time of Job-Killing Scrooges.”) Austerity is not about the budget deficit; it’s an excuse to slash social spending. Austerity, so often prescribed for the public, seems never to apply to the budgets of the Department of Defense or the National Security Agency.

This diagram shows where the stimulus kicked in—right after the deepest blue bar—inaugurating (so far) 39 straight months of job growth. Results could have been—and still could be—better. Click here for more.

Dept.Labor

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In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein has written in alarming detail about how the corporate-friendly, privatizing energies of the Republican party (and of their kin among the Democrats) want to abolish all things public that could more profitably be handled by private firms. The for-profit motive is usually behind most anti-government rhetoric and legislation. (See “Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline.”)

And yet at the same time there is often a significant and ugly racial, racist element to the conservative rejection of the public sphere. “Why should I have to pay for their public schools?” (Think of Mitt Romney and the 47 percent “who believe that they are victims.”) Lawrence Wright, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, writes in his excellent memoir In the New World: Growing Up with America from the Sixties to the Eighties (1978; just republished in paperback):

We talked about freedom all the time in Texas, and on my side of [Dallas] we had plenty of it, but we seldom talked seriously about equality. . . . What came clear to me was that freedom and equality were mutually exclusive; one came at the expense of the other.  [bold = LNW’s emphasis]

The Latin phrase res publica was the term used in ancient Rome for “public affairs,” “the things of the people,” or “the things we have in common.” Res publica is the source of the word republic. Now, if our “public things” are struggling to survive an onslaught of defunding and stripping down, then do we still have a republic? In this time of burn-it-down nihilism among tea-infused House Republicans, let us remember Diderot’s admonition, “From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.” Recall Benjamin Franklin’s answer when he was asked, upon leaving Independence Hall at the close of the constitutional convention in 1787, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”  

“You can kill a man but
 you can’t kill an idea.”

—Medgar Evers

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Further Reading

Mississippi native Willie Morris’s excellent account of the world Medgar Evers was born into, from chapter one of The Ghosts of Medgar Evers (Random House, 1998).

Biography of Medgar Evers at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research

Biography of Medgar Evers in the Encyclopedia of African American History: 1896 to the Present (Oxford University Press)

There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance

“Kill the Bill” vs. “Stop the War”: A Tale of Two Protests (Anti–Health Care Fury Stoked by Same Party That Started Iraq War)

Arguing about How to Defuse a Huge Ticking Bomb”: Burn-it-Down Nihilism Spreads Among Tea-Infused House Republicans

Tyranny Disguised as Fiscal Discipline

Mad Tea Party with Chainsaws and Clowns

Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” from The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964): click here for video

From the American National Biography (Oxford University Press): Several biographies of Medgar Evers have been published, including one by his brother Charles Evers, Evers (1971), and Ronald Bailey, Remembering Medgar Evers (1988). Evers’s murder and the Beckwith trials are the subject of Maryanne Vollers, Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trial of Byron de la Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South (1995), and Adam Nossiter, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers (1994). Evers’s involvement with the Jackson Movement is described in John R. Salter, Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979). For Us the Living (1967), by Evers’s widow Myrlie Evers-Williams and William Peters, is a personal remembrance of Evers and his career. Byron de la Beckwith is profiled by Reed Massengill in Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers? (1994). An obituary is in the New York Times, 13 June 1963.

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