“Please, Daddy, please get up!” Fifty years ago last night, Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, shot in the back by Byron De La Beckwith of the White Citizens Council. Because it collides head on with our national myths of liberty, democracy and equality, it is hard for white Americans to fully grasp – or accept – the often-subterranean violence that erupted into the open in the early 1960s. “They hate our freedoms,” George Bush told the nation after 9/11, “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” These were precisely the freedoms that black Americans were demanding 40 years earlier and that led to a backlash of terror – a terror that so disfigured the tortured body of 14-year-old Emmett Till that his mother insisted on an open casket to wake up the world; that bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls; that kidnapped and killed James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner one night in Mississippi. It was, in fact, the kind of terrorism we associate with al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas.
In the face of that terror arose one of the most extraordinary movements in history, as thousands of anonymous people rode buses, sat in at lunch counters and registered to vote, endured beatings and bombings unprotected by the state and unsupported by the public, and maintained a disciplined commitment to non-violence in the greatest demonstration of courage this country has ever witnessed.