Sunday, 20 July 2008

Behind the Songs: Too Many Martyrs

"It struck the heart of every man when Evers fell and died"
--Phil Ochs, "Too Many Martyrs" (1963)

Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers

The history is well known: On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, a rising star in the Mississippi NAACP, was gunned down by the white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Tried twice and released twice by all-white juries, Beckwith escaped conviction for three decades. In 1994 prosecutor Bobby DeLaughter once again put Beckwith on trial, and this time won a conviction.

What is not so clear is the murky racism that still haunts Mississippi. Adam Nossiter was a reporter in the South in the 1990s, covering Beckwith's trial. Considered an outsider by Mississippians, he was free to study Evers's life, death, and legacy without the handicaps of self-recrimination and self-doubt that still plague many white Southerners. Using the tools of memory and history, Nossiter reconsiders racism in the South and reveals how, by reviving the case against Beckwith, an entire community of Southerners painfully confronted its past. A new afterword examines how Beckwith's conviction opened the courtroom doors to a surprising wave of new indictments in old civil rights cases and how Mississippi is growing into its new self, one judge at a time.

In the tradition of Taylor Branch's classic Parting the Waters, this is a remarkable look at the transformation of racial issues from the 1960s through the beginning of the twenty-first century.

"A fine history of Mississippi's political, social, and racial evolution."
--Philadelphia Inquirer

"Shows how the first political assassination of the 1960s, intended to squelch the civil rights movement, actually galvanized it."
--New York Times Book Review

Adam Nossiter was a staff writer for the New York Times and before that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is the author of The Algeria Hotel: France, Memory, and the Second World War, and has been writing about the South for nearly twenty years. He lives in New Orleans.

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