Thank you, Roland [Martin] – and thank you all for being here. It’s an honor to stand with President [Bill] Clinton, Secretary [Ray] Mabus, Governor [Phil] Bryant, Senator [Roger] Wicker, Representative [Bennie] Thompson, and members of the United States military this morning. And it’s a privilege to join so many good friends, distinguished guests, and indispensable civil rights leaders – including the NAACP’s President, Ben Jealous, and past chairwoman, the extraordinary Myrlie Evers-Williams – as we come together, on our nation’s most hallowed ground, to celebrate the memory – and pay tribute to the profound sacrifices – of one of America’s greatest champions for equality, opportunity, and justice.
Although half a century has passed since Medgar Evers was taken from us – far too suddenly, and far too soon – today’s ceremony presents an important opportunity to recommit ourselves, and our nation, to the principles that he lived and died to defend. It provides a chance to ensure that his contributions, and his remarkable leadership, are remembered for generations to come. And it calls each of us to lift up the legacy of a man who stood at the forefront of the American Civil Rights Movement; an early pioneer whose vision continues to inspire us; and a trailblazer whose courageous actions – often in the face of grave danger – helped lay the foundation for much of the progress our nation has seen over the last five decades.
On what was to be the last day of his life – June 11, 1963 – Medgar Evers must have been encouraged to see such progress capture national headlines, when – in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – two brave young students, my future sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, and James Hood, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Nick Katzenbach and members of the National Guard, stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.
Those of us who are old enough to remember that infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” will never forget that moment, the progress that it marked, or the justice it secured. Nor will we forget that, years earlier, Medgar Evers – who came from a family that had long fought against racial oppression – showed the same incredible courage when he did what was unthinkable then: registering to vote and applying to the University of Mississippi Law School.
In many ways, he paved the way for that historic victory in Tuscaloosa. And I would like to think that the fight he led in Mississippi was on President John F. Kennedy’s mind when, later that day, he addressed the nation from the Oval Office and described the struggle for civil rights as a “moral issue” that is “as old as the scriptures and . . . as clear as the Constitution” – throwing the full weight of his office behind a series of proposals that would become the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The events of June 11, 1963, constituted significant victories for the Civil Rights movement – and for all those, like Medgar Evers, who helped to lead it. Yet, for all the promise they held, these events did little to transform our society overnight. In fact, even before dawn the next day – June 12th – Medgar Evers lay dead at the hands of an assassin. And the world was reminded – in the most shocking and tragic of ways – of the terrible price of liberty and justice.
Although he was just 37 years old, by the time of his senseless murder, Medgar Evers was already a distinguished military veteran and a prominent civil rights pioneer. He had proven himself to be a wise and eloquent leader who helped build a righteous struggle into a robust national movement. And he had even integrated television news in his home state of Mississippi, where he made a groundbreaking appearance on a local station just weeks before his death.
This is why, as our nation brought Medgar Evers to his rest – here, among so many of the heroes who preceded him in the struggle for freedom, equal rights, and equal justice – he was mourned not only by those, like his wonderful wife, Myrlie, and his NAACP colleagues, who knew and loved him – but by untold millions across the country.
Over the past 50 years, their actions – and their dedication to continuing his unfinished work – have reminded us that this nation was built, and it continues to be improved, by patriots like Medgar Evers. Their stories have demonstrated that – so long as we remain true to the vision of the leader we’ve gathered to remember, and keep faith in the ideals that shaped his life – there is no limit to what we can achieve. And their achievements constitute the living legacy of a man who once had the courage to stand against oppression – and the wisdom to blaze a trail for his colleagues and countrymen to follow.
We gather today to thank Medgar Evers for his vision, his leadership, and his enduring impact. In the eye of history he stands with Garvey, Malcolm, Wilkins and King. We pledge that we will never forget the man, the foundation that he laid, nor his broad shoulders that made possible the election of the first African American President and the selection of the first African American Attorney General. And, although he has been gone for half a century – as I look around this crowd, I can’t help but feel confident that his memory will continue to bear us up, and push us forward, as we walk together down the path – toward equality, opportunity, and justice – that he never finished traveling.
May God continue to bless our journey. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.