Charles Evers, the wayward older brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers who picked up his sibling’s mantle by leading black voter registration efforts in Mississippi in the 1960s and who was elected the first black mayor of a mixed-race Mississippi town since Reconstruction, died July 22 in Brandon, Miss. He was 97.
Rankin County Coroner David Ruth confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause. In a statement shared by Mississippi journalist Jerry Mitchell, the family said that Evers died at the home of his daughter Charlene.
On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, was assassinated in front of his home in Jackson, Miss., by a white supremacist with a high-powered rifle. The killing of the 37-year-old Evers was a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement and its fight against discrimination in employment, housing and voting.
If Medgar was the quiet “saint” of the Evers siblings, Charles was “the loud-mouthed Evers boy” with a street-savvy business sense, he later wrote in his autobiography, “Have No Fear.” He said his early exposure to racial violence and the indignities of segregation in Jim Crow Mississippi fueled a drive never to “learn his place” and a compulsion to make money — legally and otherwise — as a means of commanding respect.
Based in Philadelphia, Miss., in the mid-1950s, Evers became one of the state’s first black radio disc jockeys and also ran a hotel, a restaurant, a cab stand and a funeral parlor — steering some of the profits to his brother’s civil rights work. But a showdown with the powerful White Citizens’ Council, including intimidation of his employees, led him to decamp for Chicago with little more than his life and what he remembered as “19 dollars in pennies.”
At his first job as a Hilton Hotel washroom attendant, he said white male guests routinely asked him to procure black women. Sensing an opportunity, “I went into the prostitution business,” Evers said. Encounters with racketeers led to sidelines as a numbers runner and bootlegger.
His brother’s death brought a halt to his illicit enterprises — “I quit that night,” he later said. He returned to Mississippi and, in a life of unlikely twists, served 16 years as a small-town mayor, made bids for higher office and, in his last years, became a firebrand conservative radio talk-show host.
Initially a Democrat, Evers began to shun the party in the 1970s because of what he called its “phony” liberalism and its tendency to take the black vote “for granted.” He declared himself an independent and later a Republican. He embraced President Donald Trump’s anti-establishment White House run in 2016.
Evers had perhaps his most enduring civic impact soon after taking over his brother’s NAACP post and helping mobilize the black vote in Mississippi. He began organizing in a handful of Mississippi counties where black residents outnumbered whites. By 1966, he had engineered a string of successful boycotts that led to the desegregation of a hospital and increased hiring of African Americans.
Emboldened by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, Evers focused on recruiting black Democratic candidates for office and registering black voters. He made his first foray into electoral politics in 1968, when he ran for Congress.
It was one of the first serious challenges to the white establishment by a black candidate in Mississippi since the 1880s. He came in first in the Democratic primary but failed to capture a majority against six white segregationist contenders. He then decisively lost a runoff against a white opponent, Charles Griffin.
Months later, Evers decided to run for mayor of Fayette, a poverty-stricken, two-light cotton town with a sizable black population among its 1,700 citizens. He delivered rousing, sermon-like speeches during his campaign, which was credited with inspiring more than 175 African Americans to run for office across the state. The growing black political movement was described in The New York Times as “the biggest threat to the local level white establishment since Reconstruction.”
With a campaign slogan promising “A Better Fayette for Both Black and White,” Evers won the mayor’s office in 1969 by beating the longtime white incumbent, 386 to 225. He oversaw the building of a monument to his brother near another that honored Confederate dead, an action that made him the target of death threats.
He and his newly elected all-black city council set to work on an economic revival strategy that involved lifting black morale and maintaining white support in a town with a strong segregationist legacy.
“We’re not going to do to the white people what they’ve done to us,” Evers told The Washington Post after his election. “We’re going to have law and order and justice. We’ve got to prove to this country we can work together. I know we can.”
Evers’ tenure in the Fayette mayor’s office was shadowed by controversies. Federal charges of tax evasion ended in a mistrial in 1975. But he was unable to shake the image of a man who may have used his office and his brother’s legacy for personal gain.
In Fayette, Evers opened the Medgar Evers Shopping Center, complete with a grocery store, lounge, radio repair shop, ballroom and liquor store — before he initiated the black boycotts of white-owned stores in 1966. Critics charged that in addition to achieving jobs for blacks, the boycotts had another silver lining for Evers: Blacks began shopping at his shopping center, and he unabashedly profited.
“And when they say I’m a cold-hearted businessman, you better believe that, too,” he told the Times in 1969. “I’m in it for what I can get — I don’t deny it. When I start a business I make sure of my profit. And it’s the same when I call a boycott — I make sure I get paid off, in jobs for my people, and in respect.”
Although Evers’s political ambitions extended past Fayette, he was never able to clinch a bigger office. In addition to his congressional loss in 1968, Evers ran for governor in 1971, for the U.S. Senate in 1978, and for governor again in 1983. In all three of the latter races, he ran as an independent.
Evers had a “complicated” legacy, said Robert Luckett, associate professor of history at Jackson State University. Luckett said Evers was symbolic of “a black man (willing) to speak up and make claim to power.”
“You can’t deny the significance of what he was part of after 1963, and he certainly risked his life,” Luckett added. “This was still a very dangerous time to be black in Mississippi and to be outspoken.”
James Charles Evers was born in Decatur, Miss., on Sept. 11, 1922. His parents ran a funeral home and a lumber business. He and his brother, younger by three years, tramped miles through dirt and mud to a squalid schoolhouse. They were bullied by white children. But the most indelible image of Charles’s childhood was the lynching of a friend of his father.
“They drug him out and hung him to a tree,” he told the Times in 1968. “Our parents rushed us back in the house, but we could hear everybody yelling and hollering. We were just kids, but I remember it just as good as if it was the day it happened.”
He served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II and later went to Korea when his unit was reactivated. He graduated in 1950 from Alcorn A&M College, a historically black school in Lorman, Miss., now called Alcorn State University.
His marriages to Christine Evers and Nannie Magee ended in divorce. He had several children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Three decades after his brother’s death, Evers lived to see Byron De La Beckwith VI convicted of the murder. Evers told a reporter that he was only sorry he couldn’t personally execute the man. “I believe in an eye for an eye,” he said, “a life for a life.”
On his radio talk show, beamed out of Jackson, Evers often tacked to the hard right. He spoke out against black-on-black crime, sometimes in inflammatory language.
“We don’t care about each other,” he said in a May 2018 taping on WMPR-FM, a station where he also was general manager and owner. “We rob each other, we rape our women. … We are destroying our own race.”
He then made a serious appeal to Mississippi legislators, saying violence could be minimized by executing anyone convicted of murder, with the public allowed to watch. “Electric chair, hangman noose, firing squad,” he said, “let the public see it.”
He said he supported Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, but he also enthusiastically backed Trump, playing down his racially loaded language. In Trump, he saw a man who refused to adhere to the expectations of an establishment determined to take him down.
“Why are they trying to get rid of him?” Evers told NPR in 2016. “Because he won’t go along with the old status quo? He has his way of doing things, and all of us have our way of doing things.”