If you've been listening to the news lately, you've probably heard about Edgar Ray Killen's 60-year sentence for the killings of black Mississippian James Chaney and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. The three civil rights activists traveled from New York to Mississippi to register blacks to vote on Father's Day 1964. The Mississippians I've interviewed over the past few days say while the ruling is historic, it wasn't surprising. The question is, what's next? The Jackson Free Press tackles that question in its latest issue.
A few hours after the ruling came down, I met with 82-year-old Charles Evers, a leader in Mississippi's civil rights struggle. In 1963, his older brother, Medgar Evers, was shot and killed by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith stood trial twice, but in both cases the all-white jury could not reach a verdict. De La Beckwith was finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1994, thirty-one years after the murder. Medgar spent his last years establishing local chapters of the NAACP throughout the Mississippi Delta and organizing boycotts of businesses that refused to allow blacks to use their restrooms. After an unsuccessful attempt to get into the University of Mississippi Law School, Medgar was appointed as the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi.
After his brother's death, Charles took that job and began black voter registration drives. Six years later, Charles was elected mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, the first black to hold elected office in the state since Reconstruction. Charles, who became a Republican during the Nixon years, also served as an advisor to a diverse group of politicians, including Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan.
Today Evers is the general manager of WMPR, a community radio station in Jackson, Mississippi. Charles hosts a radio show on Wednesday nights called, "Let's Talk," and is the author of the book, "Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story."
Charles, an animated man with strong opinions, proudly displays a number of framed photos of himself shaking hands with a wide array of mostly Republican politicians and civil rights leaders in his office. Here are excerpts from our interview:
How do you feel about the media's coverage of the trial and the state of Mississippi in general?
Most aren't fair. They don't talk about the progress that's been made since the days of hate and destruction. We know we're not completely through, but at least give us some credit for the progress that's been made. But they don't want to do that. They still want to look back 30-40 years ago and I have a problem with that. Mississippians have come so far economically, politically, socially and racially in 40 years. It's almost unbelievable. I've been here for 82 years so I know what it was like 40 years ago. Just today we got a Mississippi born judge to sentence a white man for the killing of the civil rights workers. He got 60 years in jail. That's never happened before. He was born in Neshoba County. The jury was from Neshoba County. There were nine whites and three blacks and they voted unanimously to charge this man with manslaughter. But no one wants to show that; they want to say something negative. Forty years ago, there were no blacks elected in this state. None. And now we have the highest number of elected blacks in the country. There were no blacks in universities forty years ago. My brother was the first to even apply. Now we have them in every university in Mississippi, but no one says anything about that. That's what bothers me. Sure, terrible things have happened, but things have changed. Forty-five years ago, I couldn't marry you in Mississippi, but now you got blacks and whites marrying each other and living next door to each other. We can live anywhere in the state of Mississippi and buy a house. We couldn't do that before and now we can. So this is my message to the media: Why don't you show both sides? Then and now. I hope you're going to do that.
How do you feel about the ruling?
I'm elated. I almost shed tears knowing that they convicted an old racist. It's unbelievable. We've begun to get justice. We've begun to put fear into those whites who think they can do anything they want to a black person and get away with it. Now we got white powerful Mississippians who say, no, you can't do that anymore, and I'm proud of that.
I've been talking to a lot of people about politics and it's interesting to talk to young people. I went to the Jubilee Jam the other night and I interviewed a number of young black men who said, blacks vote Democrat. Whites vote Republican. I told them I've met a lot of whites who vote Democrat and they were shocked by that. Then I spoke to young white men and they said the same thing. They also said they have no black friends. Is that a common opinion?
I'm against an all-white anything or an all-black anything. I'm a Republican, by the way. I feel there should be blacks in every party. I believe in most of the things Republicans stand for.
I'm against abortion. I'm for prayer in schools. I'm for economic independence. I don't believe in welfare. I think it's a joke. I believe welfare makes you lazy and unproductive. The only thing I don't agree with is the war. I think the war is wrong. I think the President is wrong on this. The main thing I believe in is freedom. I don't think the Republicans say it as much as Democrats, but I think the Democrats say one thing and do another. Most of them are white.
There are a lot of black Democrats in Congress. Clinton appointed a lot of blacks.
Clinton was our number one president. I loved Clinton, not as a Democrat, but as a person.
Did you vote for Clinton?
No I didn't. I'm a Republican. I voted for my party.
So you're a party line voter?
Not all the time. But that time I did.
How do you feel about the Senate's apology for failing to make lynching a federal crime? The majority of the people who haven't signed on are Republican.
I ripped them apart on my radio show last night. It hurts me and it hurts every Mississippian and makes us look bad. I meet with them quite often and I'll tell them they're wrong. The least they could have done was say, I'm sorry.
What was your turning point? Why did you become a Republican?
I have nothing against the Democratic party. When I became mayor, I had to run as an independent because the Democrats wouldn't allow us to run as a Democrat back in those days. But once we broke the Democrats down and took over the seat, I was a national committee member, went to Chicago and took the party away from the old Democrats. And what did they do? They ran to the Republican party. So my thinking was, once we got blacks into the Democratic party, let's do the same in the Republican party and make damn sure they don't get away with nothin'. That's why I'm with the Republican party. I want to make sure we have blacks who will stand up in each party and that's me. I don't bow to none of 'em and my folks can trust me. I will never sell out to them. I tell them what they gotta do for our folk and that's to make sure we're included; not superior, but equal.
So you're basically working to change the Republican party from within rather than criticize it from the outside.
I can do more destructive things inside than I can out there throwing rocks. So I'm in the Republican party for the same reason I was in the Democratic party: to make sure blacks are included, along with everyone else. It's not like I jumped parties. I feel like both parties are not what they used to be or should be. I'll tell them when they're wrong. I couldn't do that as a Democrat. I'm on the executive committee of the Mississippi Republican party and I will tell Senator Lott that he's wrong for not apologizing for something his great grandparents did to us. Their excuse is, well, we didn't have anything to do with it. The hell you didn't. You didn't personally, but your great grandparents did. You should apologize. I have no problem telling them that and I'm a Republican. I pay my dues so they can't kick me out.
What changes have you made within the Republican party for blacks specifically?
They got a Republican that's not gonna let them run over blacks and get behind closed doors and pass laws that he's not gonna go out and tell people about. They know that.
How do you feel about the state of the national Republican party today?
I think President Bush is way out of line and I don't think he speaks for all Republicans. He doesn't speak for me.
I read the article you wrote opposing the war in the Jackson Free Press. There weren't many Republicans who broke ranks over the war at that time. There were very few Democrats who opposed the war at that time.
I have a radio talk show on Wednesday night and that was my whole show. I'm opposed to the war. I let the President know. I let all my Senators and Congressmen know. It's wrong to kill. We had no more right to go to the war against Iraq than I have to go to war against you. Iraq did nothing to us. Iraq was not responsible for
9/11. Sure 9/11 was bad. Sure they killed thousands of us, but how many have we killed of them? How much suffering have we caused them? Two wrongs don't make a right. We are just as wrong -- and I want to be quoted on that -- for going in and destroying innocent people as they were coming over here on 9/11. 9/11 is no comparison to what we've done over there and how we've destroyed the old world with our bombs and how we spread hate and how we took Saddam. I was totally against that. When we took Saddam's sons and showed them all over the world. It's just like they used to do to us black folks. They hung us from trees and let them take pictures of us. Same damn thing.
Did you have any reservations about voting for Bush, especially given your strong opposition to the war?
It bothers me. I feel like he's not telling the truth. How can he sleep knowing that he just got hundreds of people killed or destroyed everyday? He is responsible for them being killed. He's responsible for destroying all of those beautiful buildings. That was the founding of a civilization. He destroyed them. Come on, Mr. President. How can you sleep? I'd ask him that point blank. Why don't you end this war? I pray all the time. Lord, please, let our president bring this war to an end. The United States Senate is just as guilty as Bush. They went right along with him and gave him billions to continue the war. Come on. Your gas and my gas is two or three dollars a gallon. We got poor folks, white and black, who need boxes of aspirins. I'm a veteran of two wars: World War II and the Korean War and guess what? If I need a box of aspirin today from the VA, I'd go through hell to get it. The veteran who comes home with no legs and no arms is pushed aside and can't get waited on. It's crazy. No one will say the truth. Democrats or Republicans. Reid speaks out once in a while, but they chop him up right away.
When I interview people, I bring up some of these issues, but they don't seem to care. Essentially the facts don't matter. Do you encounter that?
Oh yeah. My thing is, I don't give a damn what people think about me or what I say. To hell with what anybody thinks about me. White, black of polka dot. I'm against the war. I'm against killing. I've lost two brothers on some stupid murder by some crazy racist.
How do the Republicans respond to you when you raise these issues?
They don't really respond. They ignore me, but I'll keep saying it and they know they got one darkie that ain't gonna change. And that's me.
What do you think about the Republicans who say, we're so inclusive now. We have Condoleeza Rice and many high ranking black officials.
Bullshit. That's bullshit. We're not inclusive. The Republican party is not inclusive. The Republican party does not reach out. We're fighting for them to do that. I'll admit that President Bush did appoint Condoleeza Rice. He appointed Powell, but that wasn't enough. What about the local Republicans? Did he go around the country and campaign for blacks who were running for office? No. They're not inclusive. The Democrats aren't either. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Republican and I'm gonna stay a Republican because they need somebody like me to stay in the party and keep hammering away.
You feel like you have your issues and priorities and you want to bring them to the party. Do you ever get a response?
They won't listen to me. Others feel the same way but won't say it. What are you afraid of? I'd rather be dead and in heaven than afraid to do what I think is right. This war is wrong and I'm not afraid to say it. See the picture of me with Bush? His dad and I were very close. I don't think his father wanted him to go to war. The problem is, the Republican party hasn't done anything to make this country better and I speak as a Republican. I think they're creating so much division among the country. Any time the country is split 50/50, the leader is wrong. What about the other 50 percent? We need a change. I hope the next president unifies the country.
How did you feel about the 2004 election and all the mudslinging? It was pretty ugly.
First of all, I knew that a Democrat was not going to win. I knew that. You know why? This is a racist country. Anybody who runs for President in this country and comes out as strong as they were about helping the poor folks and black folks is not going to win. It's that simple. Not in America. Two people will never be President in my lifetime. A woman and a black. They can run Mrs. Clinton if they want to. She'll be beaten. America is still a bigoted country. Mark my words. I guarantee I won't live to see it. I would love to, but it won't happen. I told Colin Powell, don't you be a fool. You want to be embarrassed? Run.
Don't you think a black candidate would get a lot more blacks out to vote?
Yeah, but we can't elect a president. If Democrats want to win, talk them into electing a black man for vice president.
Voter turnout is so low all over the country. How do you encourage blacks to vote?
I usually take Medgar and Martin and say, do you care what they fought for? If you don't vote, you show disrespect for them. That's what I say. I don't know if it does any good or not. The least I can do is show Medgar I still care. And Martin. They all were my friends and we all fought for the same thing. Some of the youngsters say, my vote doesn't count. If your vote doesn't count, how do you think you got where you are? Somebody voted for you. I came back the other night from Washington and guess what? A young black man flew me back here. He's a pilot on Delta Airlines. We're flying planes. We couldn't even get on a plane forty years ago. When Megdar was killed, I came back from Chicago and couldn't go inside the airport in Jackson, Mississippi. I had to wait outside for my bag. Now we have blacks flying on Delta. We got blacks running airports. We can't forget that. We gotta keep saying that. That's why I hope reporters like you will say that. Show both sides. The negative and the positive. Today was a historical thing. Can you imagine? A white judge born in Neshoba county gave another white man 60 years for killing a black and two whites. Can you believe that? They'll say a little bit about it. Then it's all over. Now if you came in here and shot me, oh god, every damn press in the country would be here. White woman shoots black man! NBC. CBS. CNN. All of 'em. You couldn't get rid of 'em, cause it involves some nigger.
In terms of the media, a lot conservative radio shows have been talking about Senator Byrd and his beginnings with the KKK. How do you feel about that?
That was the thing to do then. I'm not justifying it, don't get me wrong, but that was the popular thing to do to get what you wanted. In order to get elected, you had to talk about niggers. If you vote for Charles Evers, he goin' take your daughter and marry her. We gotta forgive white people, but never forget.
What other issues are important to you? What have Republicans done well in the past four years?
Have they done anything? Our gasoline is three times what it was a few years ago. Unemployment is about four times what it was a few years ago. Hatred is getting worse for both blacks and whites. The Christians are trying to take over everything. We have a mess going and we need to straighten up our act.
One of the major differences between the Republicans and the Democrats I've met is this: Republicans emphasize personalize responsibility. They say, we don't like social programs. Everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Democrats say people need help.
I partially agree with that. Partially. Give us a chance to pull ourselves up. I don't like a lot of social programs either because it makes you non-productive. Speaking as a black person, welfare is the worst thing that's ever happened to us. My dad always told us, and I'll never forget this, before I get commodities, I'll kill all of you and then kill myself. I was totally against them giving me commodities like meal, sugar and flour. I always want to be able to work and take care of y'all. That's my job. I don't want you ever asking me about welfare. Welfare makes you dependent upon someone to take care of you. Republicans say, no, we're not giving you nothin'. I like that. My problem is, don't block me. Republicans say, go do it yourself and I say, give me a chance to do it for myself.
That's the main point, right? Go to any poor neighborhood, black or white. You'll find old books, run down buildings and teachers who have to buy their own school supplies. So at that point, where's the hope? Especially if they come from a broken family that's not emotionally available.
My whole thing is if Bush wants to leave no child behind, then prove it. What you're afraid to do Mr. Bush, is to go to the poorest neighborhoods in all the states and find out what district needs the most. And don't worry about the affluent neighborhood. We need to bring up those communities that need it the most. It ain't gotta be black folks. There are a lot of poor white folks now.
Why is it that people tend to not identify with those basic economic interests? They identify with conservative social issues like gay marriage and abortion, but not issues like education and poverty.
They're not popular issues. We need to take responsibility and educate people. That's why black folks don't like me. I always say it's our responsibility to make safe neighborhoods. It's our job to get them cleaned up.
I notice one of the few Democrats on your wall is Robert F. Kennedy.
I was with Bobby the night he was killed. If any Kennedy ran for president, I'd vote for him. The Kennedy's and the Rockefeller's, before anybody else gave a damn about black folks, they did what they could. I took Bobby Kennedy through the delta and he cried like a baby. He said, I didn't know anybody could live like this. He said he just didn't know any colored folks. We were colored back then. He just didn't know.
After having this conversation with you, it's clear that you're a Republican to change the party from within, but the media makes you sound like you're a hardcore black loyal Republican from Mississippi.
They don't know a thing about me. I am a black Republican by choice and I do it to make sure the Republicans straighten up.
But that should be included in the story.
They won't do that. Go down to the Republican headquarters. They ain't got a single black working there. Not one. I've been giving them hell about that. I gotta keep hammering away. I'm on the executive committee and I keep repeating, what about a black? It's getting pretty lonely here with all you white folks. I'm the only darkie here. I can say darkie and I can say nigger. I can say what I want about my own folks. And they look at me real funny. They whisper, Charles you're right. And I say, tell the chairman that.
Sounds like you enjoy the challenge.
I love the life I live. The Lord blessed me to be independent. I am independent.