Medgar Evers: Civil Rights Icon and World War II Veteran

By Kevin M. Hymel, Historian on 6/12/2023

It’s easy to identify Medgar Evers’ grave marker in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 36, either from Schley Drive or the nearby walkway. Stones, military tributes, flowers, and other tokens of veneration often adorn his headstone and the ground around it. An icon and martyr of the civil rights movement, Evers is buried at ANC because of his U.S. Army service during World War II, and because his wife, Myrlie, eventually decided she wanted to give the public the opportunity to visit his grave.

Evers grew up in Decatur, Mississippi, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1943, during World War II. He served as a laborer and cargo checker before becoming a military policeman in the 657th Port Company. A segregated unit with Black soldiers and white officers, the unit was charged with hauling supplies from ports to the men fighting at the front. At the time, the majority of African Americans in the racially segregated military were generally assigned to support positions rather than to the few segregated combat units.

Evers’ unit landed in Normandy, France, a few weeks after the massive Allied assault on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As Allied forces broke out of the Normandy beachhead and moved across France, Evers’ unit took part in the Red Ball Express, which provided the crucial function of driving supplies to the front. This work was done mostly by Black soldiers under the command of white officers. Evers served until the end of the war and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1946. For his service, Evers earned two Bronze Stars and a Good Conduct Medal.

Like many African American soldiers who served in Europe during World War II, he found that in France, people treated him as a soldier and an American, regardless of the color of his skin. According to his brother Charles, the experience convinced him that people of all races could live together peacefully. Evers returned home from the war committed to fighting for racial equality. In 1946, however, he and his brother registered to vote, only to be confronted by a group of angry white people who prevented them from casting their ballots.

Nonetheless, Evers attended college, graduating from Mississippi’s Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University). There, he met Myrlie Beasley, whom he married on Dec. 24, 1951. The couple moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Evers took a job as an insurance salesman for Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance. Meanwhile, Evers began volunteering for the local chapter of the NAACP, as well as the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL). With the NAACP, he helped organize boycotts of gas stations that denied African Americans the use of their bathrooms. Boycotters handed out bumper stickers with the slogan, “Don’t Buy Gas Where You Can’t Use the Restroom.”

In 1954, Evers applied to the University of Mississippi Law School—the first Black man to do so. The university denied him admission on a technicality, and the NAACP focused on Evers’ case in an attempt to desegregate the law school. Later that year, he became the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi, where he helped organize boycotts, led voter drives, and worked to desegregate schools, beaches, and parks. He helped James Meredith enroll at the University of Mississippi, becoming the school’s first Black student. Evers also expanded the NAACP within the state. Simply put, through his leadership, Evers became the face of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

Just after midnight on June 12, 1963, after working late at a civil rights meeting, Evers parked his car in his driveway and walked to the front door of his home. His pregnant wife and two children, who had stayed up late to watch President John F. Kennedy address the nation about the need for federal civil rights legislation, heard him pull up and were preparing to greet him. He never reached the door. Instead, he was shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith, a white segregationist. After Beckwith shot Evers, his family ran out to him, and one of his children cried, “Please, Daddy, please get up!” His neighbors drove Evers to University Hospital in Jackson, where he died an hour later.

As a result of Evers’ murder, mass demonstrations erupted in Mississippi for several days. Thousands of people attended his funeral service in Jackson, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While Myrlie initially wanted her husband to be buried in a local cemetery, her friends and civil rights associates urged her to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery, where more people could visit his grave.

On June 19, 1963, after thousands attended a two-day viewing at the John Wesley Church in Washington, D.C., a large group of mourners followed the hearse bearing Evers’ remains to the Fort Myer Chapel for his funeral. His casket was then brought to Section 36, where he was buried with full military honors before a crowd of more than 2,000 people. Today, visitors continue to visit his gravesite to honor his legacy and sacrifice.

Evers’ murder served as a galvanizing moment in civil rights history. It increased support for the legislation that would later become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At ANC, we commemorate his service to the country, both in and out of uniform. 

Medgar Evers’ wife, Myrlie, and their children visit his grave a year after his funeral. More than 2,000 NAACP delegates joined the family for the pilgrimage to his gravesite. (NARA)

Learn More: 

   •  Segregation and Civil Rights Walking Tour

   •  Education: African American History at Arlington National Cemetery

   •  Notable Graves: African Americans