(Originally published on 03.01.2012)
If you ask a friend to name someone from the Civil Rights Movement, most will probably name Martin Luther King, Jr. and there’s no questioning the legacy left behind by MLK and his impact on the African-American Civil Rights Movement. During the 1950s and 60s, many blacks were killed and their stories were never told, their murders were never solved and justice never prevailed. Among the many who lost their lives, some stories did make national headlines and helped change civil rights for blacks in America. Learn the names and stories of five black men who helped shape the civil rights movement in life and death.
5. James Earl Chaney
James Earl Chaney was a young black man born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi. In the summer of 1964, Chaney volunteered with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to establish education on voting and became a liaison between CORE and church leaders to encourage churches to set-up voter registration stations. Chaney and two white volunteers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were investigating a church fire in Philadelphia, MS when they were arrested on traffic violations and then released later that night.
As they made their way back to Meridian, two cars full of Klansmen ambushed their vehicle, shooting and killing Schwerner and Goodman. Chaney was also shot after he was tortured and chain-whipped. The three men were missing for 44 days before being found in a riverbank. Chaney’s murder gained national attention, but many people felt his story wouldn’t have been told were it not for the two white men who were also murdered with him. Chaney’s brutal murder contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
4. Jimmie Lee Jackson
Jimmie Lee Jackson was a 26-year-old deacon from Marion, Alabama. Jackson had unsuccessfully tried to vote for several years, and began attending meetings at Zion United Methodist Church to learn about black voting rights. On February 18, 1965, Jackson and 500 others walked in a non-violent march from the church to the jail where a civil rights worker was being held. The police and state troopers met the protestors and began beating them in the streets.
Jackson, his mother, and grandfather ran into a nearby cafe for safety but police chased them into the restaurant. After beating Jackson’s mother and grandfather, Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler shot Jackson twice at close range. At the time, a grand jury refused to indict Fowler. In 2007, Fowler was charged with first degree murder of Jackson, but only served six months in jail for manslaughter. Jackson’s death sparked the Selma to Montgomery marches and the historic "Bloody Sunday" protest.
3. George Winston Lee
George Winston Lee was a reverend and civil rights leader who was living in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1955. Lee was a well-respected leader and established a field branch of the NAACP in Belzoni. He was also Vice President of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL) and gave a speech almost a month before his killing to a crowd of over 7,000. On the evening of May 7, 1955, Lee was driving home when he was shot three times at close range. Local authorities said Lee died of injuries sustained in a car accident, but amid pressure from black leaders like Medgar Evers, Lee’s murder was investigated but remains unsolved to this day. Lee’s murder helped expose the oppressive nature of Jim Crow states and gave momentum to the civil rights movement.
2. Medgar Evers
Medgar Evers was a World War I veteran and civil rights activist from Mississippi. Evers helped organize boycotts of gas stations that refused to allow blacks to use their restrooms, and worked towards segregating the University of Mississippi. Evers was very vocal in the murder of Emmett Till and others, and became a target of white supremacists. On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot and killed in his driveway. His murder inspired many civil rights protests and brought more attention to the civil rights movement. Although Byron De La Beckwith was arrested for the murder, it would take over 30 years for a jury to convict him of Evers’ murder.
1. Emmett Louis Till
Emmett Louis "Bobo" Till was a precocious 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi the summer of 1955. He reportedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store and was kidnapped a few days later by the woman’s husband and brother-in-law, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan.
Till was brutally beaten and his eye was gouged out before the men shot him, tied a 70-lb cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was found 3 days later and returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open casket so that the world could see what was done to her innocent child. Both "Jet" magazine and "The Chicago Defender" published the photos, making Till’s murder a global story. Till’s murder is considered the catalyst for the start of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.
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