By: Sid Salter
Charles Evers, who died last week at the age of 97, changed Mississippi politics in ways that are profound and enduring. Yet Evers was for most of his life a walking contradiction in both his public and private lives.
Civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King – with whom Evers later worked – were perceived as spiritual leaders who sought justice on the strength of ideals. But Charles Evers was a street fighter, who demanded a piece of the American pie and was willing to do whatever he had to do to get it.
Born in Decatur in Newton County in 1922, Evers served in the U.S. Army in both World War II and the Korean Conflict. A 1950 graduate of Alcorn A&M, Evers would move to Philadelphia in Neshoba County in 1951. There, he worked in a funeral home, ran a taxi, was a bootlegger, operated a juke joint café, and an adjacent hotel.
Evers got his start in radio at WHOC-AM, the same 1,000-watt station owned and operated by pioneering Mississippi broadcaster William Howard Cole, the same courageous white WWII combat veteran who gave me my first job in radio years later. Evers played blues records on the air and used the forum to encourage black listeners to register to vote.
By 1956, Evers said segregationists put enough heat on the Cole family and on him and his family that Evers departed Philadelphia for Chicago. The Chicago years saw Evers do what he had always done – make a buck any way he could.
“I was a bathroom attendant at the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue,” Evers told me in an interview. “White men were always asking me to help them find black women, prostitutes and otherwise, so I did. From there, I also ran the numbers for the Mob and sold whiskey, just like I had in Mississippi.”
But on June 12, 1963, Charles Evers saw his life change when his younger brother Medgar Evers – the charismatic field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP – was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson home on June 12, 1963, by segregationist zealot Byron De La Beckwith.
Charles Evers said his brother’s murder ended his proclivities toward making a living through vice and set his sights on civil rights and social justice. He succeeded his brother as field secretary of the NAACP. In that role, Charles Evers would rub shoulders with President John F. Kennedy and King.
Months later in 1963, Kennedy was assassinated – and Evers found lifetime allies in the slain president’s brothers, Robert, and Edward Kennedy. “They lost a brother like I lost a brother,” Evers said.
Evers used economic boycotts to rally blacks to register to vote and to impose the will of black customers in Mississippi towns for jobs and equal treatment in the 1960s. He turned state politics on its head in 1968 when he ran for the U.S. House – winning the Democratic first primary before losing the runoff to white contender Charles Griffin.
He pivoted in 1969 to a run for mayor of Fayette as a Democrat, which he won over a white incumbent. Evers served as mayor of Fayette from 1969 to 1981, was defeated for one term, then was elected to a fourth term from 1985-89.
In 1978, the battle to choose a successor to legendary Mississippi U.S. Sen. James O. “Big Jim” Eastland saw then-Republican 4th District U.S. Rep. Thad Cochran turn back the challenge of Democrat Maurice Dantin of Columbia and Evers running as an independent. Dantin was the hand-picked candidate of the dying Eastland political machine.
A lifelong Democrat until the mid-1970s, Evers left the party over complaints that state Democrats took African American voters “for granted” without rewarding their loyalty with a sharing of power. Cochran won the general election with a 45 percent plurality of the vote, trailed by Dantin with 32 percent and Evers with 23 percent.
Evers ran for governor as an independent in 1983 against eventual winner Democrat Bill Allain and Republican Leon Bramlett.
Charles Evers brought political opportunity to black voters by helping break the stranglehold that whites had on the Democratic Party in the state – then spent the rest of his life as an avowed Republican. President Donald Trump tweeted his sympathies at Evers’ passing.