Sixty years ago today, civil rights activist and Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers, was shot and killed in his driveway by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Byron de la Beckwith. Evers, a 37-year-old decorated World War II combat veteran who survived the Normandy landings, graduated from Alcorn State College. He left behind a wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and three children: Darrell, James, and Reena.
The lethal assault on Evers was one of the very few white supremacist assaults on Black activists that made the national news in the early 1960s, a time when Black people were routinely attacked by elected and appointed officials. I could not find any complete accounting of how many people were shot, beaten, lynched, raped, blown up, or otherwise physically assaulted and killed in the 20 years between 1945 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. But Evers stands in for thousands of people who were terrorized, injured, and died to free Black Americans from an organized, right-wing political conspiracy to keep them poor, uneducated, and legally disenfranchised forever.
There is no denying that political violence is what the white South stood for until the 1970s: Democrats then, they are Republicans today, and they are organized as a national movement. And just as we see today, the political violence that empowered and energized Byron de la Beckwith was openly organized and encouraged, and the perpetrators protected, by a conspiracy of white politicians elected by white voters. Like today’s right-wing attacks on Black Lives Matter and other social justice organizations, it was justified by false narratives that Black civil rights activism was a form of violence against whites that deserved a violent response.
Medgar Evers died at the hands of people whose ideological (and, in some cases, actual) descendants threaten our democracy with violence today. Currently, numerous Republican politicians, many sitting elected officials, warn that former president Donald Trump’s arraignment tomorrow in Miami will unleash a wave of civil violence on his behalf. Anticipating protests, Miami’s Republican mayor, Francis Suarez, will brief reporters this afternoon about security that will be in place to protect legal forms of protest and prevent violence.
As I reported earlier this year, since the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, these calls to mass violence have not been successful. In April of this year, Trump issued a similar call to action after Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged him with 34 felonies related to hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels. The predicted mob of MAGA faithful never showed; instead, a small collection of weirdos who did not even have the wherewithal and organizing strength to provide a sound system assembled to “defend” their leader.
Despite these continuous Republican calls for violence against the government, some open and some of the dog-whistle variety, I am less concerned about civil war than I am about lethal attacks on individuals, as we saw with Representative Gabby Giffords in 2011, or Paul Pelosi attack in November 2022. And, of course, these shocking attacks, issued in an atmosphere driven by violent Republican rhetoric, produce violence against all politicians. Although he was killed before anyone could ascertain his motive, in 2017, a gun-obsessed Bernie Sanders partisan sprayed a baseball field where the Republican House baseball team was practicing, wounding four, including Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA, 01).
The fact remains that it is Republican politicians who encourage this desire for armed conflict, rhetoric that positions the Biden administration as corrupt and an “enemy of the people.” Scalise, himself the victim of political violence, has used the language of government “weaponization” to characterize the new federal charges against Trump, a word that, in MAGA world, implicitly invites partisans to protect Trump—and by extension, themselves—with actual weapons. Clay Briggs (R-LA, 03) recently wrote to his audience on Twitter as if they were an army and he was restraining them from an all-out attack on the Miami courthouse where Trump will be arraigned tomorrow. “This is a perimeter probe from the oppressors. Hold. POTUS has this,” he tweeted on June 8, implying that the federal government was literally at war with the former President and his supporters.