The Moral Issue Remains: Medgar Evers and the US Fifty Years Later

Two events that took place just hours apart 50 years ago serve as a metaphor for our nation’s struggle for racial equality.

On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the nation demanding that the federal government aggressively put in place measures to guarantee the constitutional rights of blacks. JFK was comprehensive in his goals, insisting that the federal government be actively involved in addressing institutional racism in housing, the labor market, schooling, access to voting, and public accommodations. This call for racial equality occurred when Jim Crow laws were the norm, a majority of public schools were racially segregated, and blacks were politically disenfranchised. When JFK gave his speech, more than 80 percent of all black workers were concentrated in farming, manual labor, and service-sector jobs that guaranteed subsistence wages and intergenerational poverty.

JFK’s call was righteous, radical, and quintessentially American. It was a demand for equal rights and opportunity based on the Golden Rule. Kennedy argued

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue . . . whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.

The next morning, in Jackson, Miss., white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith sat hidden behind a bush, waiting for Medgar Evers, the local NAACP field secretary and a father of three, to return home. Beckwith shot the civil rights activist in the back, and he died within the hour. Although the evidence linking Beckwith to the murder was overwhelming, he was acquitted twice by all-male, all-white juries. Thirty years later, Beckwith was retried and convicted of murder. He died in prison in 2001.

Social scientists are fond of pointing out that when individuals, typically white individuals, discuss racism, they use the past tense. As a nation, we like to believe that the odious and racist views of people like Beckwith have died out and been replaced by the idealism of an equitable and just society embodied in the aspirations articulated in JFK’s speech on racial equality. How much has changed in 50 years? Is our democracy self-correcting, with our moral arc consistently bending toward justice, as evidenced by Beckwith’s eventual conviction? Or is this just another example of “justice delayed is justice denied,” an enduring feature of how this nation treats racial minorities and newcomers?

JFK’s own words allow us to empirically examine the progress in racial equality over the last 50 years. He observed

The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.

Compare JFK’s statistics with today’s. In 2010-11, whites graduated from high school at a rate of 76 percent and blacks at 60 percent. In 2010, whites graduated from college at a rate of 62 percent, blacks at 40 percent. In 2013, unemployment for whites was 6.7 percent; it was 13.2 percent for blacks. In 2010, 35 percent of whites and 24 percent of blacks worked in “management, professional, and related occupations.” A salary of $10,000 in 1963 would be worth $75, 990 today; 18 percent of black families and 34 percent of white families made $75,000 or more. On average, whites live five years longer than blacks. Median household income in 2011 was $55,214 for whites, $32,229 for blacks.

At least in the categories mentioned by JFK, it is undeniable that progress has been made. A mountain of earth remains to be moved, however, to level the playing field.

We like to believe that people like Beckwith die off or are marginalized by good people of conscience, and that their exit means social progress is being made. We are invested in the narrative that growing racial tolerance necessarily means shrinking racial inequality, although this equation no longer depicts reality. A black president can be elected (twice), and we may not blink at an interracial couple walking down the street, but that doesn’t mean that racial inequality is in decline or in its death throes. The recession has hurt almost everyone, but it has disproportionately wreaked economic havoc on some racial minorities.

What we should be asking ourselves is, Where are the speeches like Kennedy’s that appeal to the citizenry’s better angels to right a social wrong? Where are the pleas to Americans on moral and ethical grounds by those who can use the bully pulpit to raise public awareness of the social inequalities that continue to plague our nation?

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Charles A. Gallagher is chair of the department of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. E-mail him at gallagher@lasalle.edu. See some of his work here.