We May Never Pass This Way Again
by Harold Graham
We may never pass this way again is a refrain that drifts like a soft Summer breeze through a popular song by Seals and Croft from the 1960s. I am told, however, that the expression first appeared in the Holy Scriptures.
Seven simple words, but a profound introduction into what our life should be like. We have only one life to live on this earth, and for whatever we accomplish in the way of fame and fortune, there is no greater gift to posterity than how we treat our fellow man.
I grew up at Conehatta in the 1940s and 1950s. I vividly recall a schoolyard incident that happened in 1954. I had just tackled J. D., as I will call him, in an otherwise friendly game of football, but as J. D. drew himself to his feet, I shoved him down again. My message was clear: You will stay down and I will do my part to make sure that it is forever. It was perhaps the most shameful experience of my life and one that I vowed never to repeat. It did not matter that I had three homemade shirts to J. D.s one hand-me-down shirt. We were all poor during those times and it was absurd to think I was better than him.
This lesson, however, was one that was hard to follow. I lived, you see, in a society that taught that one race was better than another and took extreme measures to keep it that way. The message was clear to anyone of the Negro race: You will stay down and we will do our part to make sure that it is forever. We all lived by a strict social code and anyone who violated that code was subject to reprisal. Any Negro that crossed the line was a candidate for death. It was, as former Mississippi Governor William Winter has aptly stated, a straitjacket that bound all of us.
I rode a bus to school each day. Medgar Evers had to walk the seven-plus miles from Decatur to Newton to attend high school. Medgar Evers took his hamburger out the back door of the kitchen, but I was allowed to sit in the restaurant to eat my hamburgerall (with coke) for the same 35 cents. Returning from World War II and in which he served honorably, Medgar was violently sent from the courthouse when he attempted to register to vote. I experienced no problem, but was told by a smirking clerk that the constitutional question I had to answer was designed to keep Negroes from voting.
Upon his graduation from Alcorn A & M College, Medgar moved with his new wife, Myrlie Beasley Evers, to the Mississippi Delta where he began a career selling insurance. But he also involved himself in the emerging civil rights movement. It was a request for assistance from the national offices of the NAACP that got him a job offer as Mississippi Field Secretary with the NAACP. With this new job, he moved to Jackson, where he began a campaign to increase voter registration among the Negro population. This brought him under immediate scrutiny of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.
The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission was a state-funded agency dedicated to preserving segregation. At its forefront were politicians who were gifted at race-baiting and newspaper editors who told only one side of any story dealing with race. In the dark shadows were the special agents with close ties to the Klan who brought under surveillance any individual that aroused their interest. Their extensive records, open to the public only by court order, contain not only files for Medgar Evers and his wife Myrlie, but also for their minor children, all under the age of 10 at the time. Children?
Also in the records of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission is a file for Elaine P. Graham. Elaine P. Graham? Now, that got my attention. Elaine P. Graham, you see, was the name of my mother and the most non-controversial individual to walk the face of this earth. Whether these records are about her or some other innocent soul is unimportant. We all lived in a dark period of history where the message was clear: You will stay down forever and we will do anything to make it stay that way, even if innocent people have to suffer. Not too different from the Communists that we all hated.
We are all products of our history. Some individuals drift through life just accepting the status quo. Medgar Evers was satisfied with neither the imperfect past nor the troubled present and sought to change history. For his efforts to change the status quo, he was killed by an assassins bullet as he was returning home from an NAACP meeting. That happened some forty years ago on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi.
Although it took the better part of forty years to bring his killer to justice, much has changed of which he would be proud. It is not simply that streets and parks have been named in his honor, that books that have been written, nor that movies have been produced that depict his struggle. In the wake of his death, President L. B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that changed dramatically how Negroes were treated under the law.
Beyond the scope of the law, however, the changes have been more fundamental. We are reminded that his mission to change things was more about improving humanity than it was about changing racial practices, but that one could not take place without the other also happening. More so, his mission was to create a kinder society where everyone was treated with dignity and respect and had an equal opportunity to succeed. He loved the Mississippi that he grew up in, but had the courage to put his life on the line to make it a better place to live for all of our citizens. There should be no one who would quarrel with that.