Charles Evers (b. September 11, 1922) is the older brother of the civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, former Field Secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. Charles introduced Medgar to the U.S. civil rights movement and was a successful organizer in his own right.
Born in Decatur, Mississippi, Evers had a devoutly Christian mother and a fearless father. He learned from his parents that racism was not only wrong but un-Christian, and he always saw the civil rights movement as a Christian movement teaching love, liberation and equality for all.
During World War II, Charles and Medgar Evers both served in the U.S. Army. Charles fell in love with a Filipino woman overseas but could not marry her and take her back with him to Mississippi because of her “white” skin color.
Back in Mississippi, around 1951, Charles and Medgar Evers grew very interested in Jomo Kenyatta and his use of the “mau-mau” movement to free the nation of Kenya from colonial shackles in Africa. Along with his brother, he became active in the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a civil rights organization that also promoted self-help and business ownership. He drew inspiration from Dr. T.R.M. Howard, the president of the RCNL, who was one the wealthiest blacks in the state. Evers often spoke at the RCNL’s annual conferences in Mound Bayou between 1952 and 1955 on such issues as voting rights.
Around 1956, Evers’s entrepreneurial gifts and his civil rights activism landed him in trouble in Philadelphia, Mississippi. He left town and moved to Chicago. In Chicago, Evers says that he vowed to support the movement back home and fell into a life of hustling, running numbers for the mob and managing prostitutes. The money he made is said to have been substantial, and much of it was sent back to help the movement.
One evening in 1963, Byron De La Beckwith shot Medgar Evers to death as Evers came home from work. Charles Evers took over Medgar’s post as Field Secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi over the opposition of more established figures in the NAACP, like Roy Wilkins.
In 1966, Evers led a controversial boycott of local white businesses in Claiborne County. Initially the courts ruled that Evers’ boycott was unlawful due to threats of violence toward boycott nonparticipants. By 1982, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, ruling in favor of the boycotters.
In 1969, Charles Evers was elected Mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, and was the first African American mayor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. By then, Fayette had a majority of blacks, but African Americans had not enjoyed full voting rights there. Fayette had no industry, which meant it had almost no residents who had grown up outside the area. It was known to be hostile towards black people. His swearing-in as mayor had enormous symbolic statewide and national resonance. The NAACP named Evers their 1969 Man of the Year. John Updike mentioned Evers in his popular novel “Rabbit Redux.” Evers popularized the slogan “Hands that picked cotton can now pick the mayor.”
Evers served many terms as mayor of Fayette. Admired by some, he alienated others with his inflexible stands on various town issues. The political rival who finally defeated Evers in a mayoral election used the slogan: “We’ve seen what Fayette can do for one man. Now let’s see what one man can do for Fayette.”
Charles Evers later ran for Governor of Mississippi, losing the race but showing the way for African American candidates of the future. In 1978, he ran for a seat in the United States Senate in Mississippi as an independent to succeed the retiring segregationist Democrat James Eastland. He finished in third place behind his opponents Democrat Maurice Dantin and Republican Thad Cochran but received 24% of the vote. It is very likely that Evers siphoned off enough black votes from Dantin to allow Cochran to win.
Evers has also attracted controversy for his support of judicial nominee Charles W. Pickering, in contrast to organizations such as the Mississippi NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus. He remains distrusted by some blacks for allegedly cooperating with the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Evers has befriended an astonishing range of people from sharecroppers to presidents. He was an informal advisor to politicians as diverse as Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Kennedy, George Wallace and Ronald Reagan.
Using humor and a knack for the unexpected to keep his critics and opponents off-balance, Evers has also heaped scorn on black leaders who, he believes, are charlatans or have not “paid the price.” Charles Evers has been highly critical of such black community leaders as Roy Wilkins, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Louis Farrakhan.
Today Evers is a prominent member of the Mississippi Republican party and a radio host.
Charles Evers and Andrew Szanton, Have No Fear,Have No Fear: The Charles Evers Story (1998 book)
David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, T.R.M. Howard: Pragmatism over Strict Integrationist Ideology in the Mississippi Delta, 1942-1954 in Glenn Feldman, ed., Before Brown: Civil Rights and White Backlash in the Modern South (2004 book), 68-95.
John Dittmer, Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994 book).
Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995 book).