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'The Word Is Free' : For the three children of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, the conviction of their father's murderer after 30 years has finally ended a lifetime in limbo. Quietly, each is fulfilling their father's dreams by living out their own.

March 20, 1994|GLEN JUSTICE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Darrell Kenyatta Evers remembers vividly the night his father, Medgar Evers, was killed.

"My sister and my brother and my mother were watching TV, sitting on the bed," he said.

The date was June 12, 1963. The family was at home in Jackson, Miss., watching President John F. Kennedy talk about a "moral crisis" in America, explaining to the country the precepts that would become the Civil Rights Act a year later. It was late and the kids were being allowed to wait up for their father, a rare treat in the Evers household.

"My father pulled up in the driveway," Darrell said. "We were ready to greet him, because every time he came home it was special for us. He was traveling a lot at that time. All of a sudden we heard a shot. We knew what it was."

The children hit the floor as they had practiced with their father. Duck-and-cover drills were a part of life for black people in the South who were active in the civil rights movement. The Evers home had been attacked twice previously and nobody was taking any chances.

"My mother went to the front door to see what was wrong," he said. "And then all of a sudden, I heard her start screaming."

Evers, who was carrying a load of "Jim Crow Must Go" sweat shirts in his arms, had just come back from a civil rights rally when he was shot by a gunman hiding in a honeysuckle thicket near his driveway. The bullet went through him and into the house, and the gunman got away.

The shot that killed Medgar Evers, a 38-year-old NAACP field secretary, resonated throughout America. It galvanized many into action, including Myrlie Evers, who picked up where her husband left off. But the ones for whom it perhaps rang loudest were Evers' three children.

It was they who saw their father for the last time bleeding on the front porch.

It was they who had to live in a spotlight they didn't create as they were splashed all over the nation's front pages in the days after the attack.

And it was they who were forced to endure the 30-year legal struggle that ended only last month when a Mississippi jury decided that avowed segregationist Byron de la Beckwith, now 73, was indeed the man who shot their father in the back. Twice before, all-white juries had failed to reach a verdict in the murder case.

"The fact that we've all survived with the degree of sanity that we have is a miracle," Myrlie Evers, now 61, said by phone from her home in Oregon. "My children are survivors. When I look back, their lives could have easily taken a different path. They are a credit to their father. And they are my crowning achievement."

Darrell was 9 when his father was killed. Reena was 8. And James Van Dyke, known as "Van," was only 3. Against the backdrop of Myrlie Evers' activism, in the dim light of an endless court battle, the three children have quietly taken care of each other and persevered.

All three now live in Southern California and keep in close contact with their mother, who settled in Los Angeles after the shooting and began a civic career that included a stint as a Public Works Commissioner and an unsuccessful run for city council. She is now semi-retired and married to Walter Williams, her husband of 18 years.

"We're connected by spirit," Van said. "There are no words for it."

*

In recent interviews, the Evers children talked of dealing with their father's death differently.

"It's my father that got taken away," said Reena Evers-Everett, who works for an airline. "We all had a special relationship with Daddy. You never get over losing a parent."

Small remembrances are a part of it. Reena named her eldest son Daniel Medgar Evers Everett. Darrell uses his middle name, Kenyatta, because his father gave it to him in honor of Jomo Kenyatta, the former president of Kenya and a noted author.

"It was supposed to be my (first) name," he said. "My mother switched it to Darrell before it became official."

But coping with the loss--and the accompanying expectations--are a significantly larger part.

As the oldest, there were many who expected Darrell, now 40, to jump into his father's shoes and take up the fight. Many, including family members, say he even looks like his father.

However, the days immediately following the shooting revealed a great deal to Darrell, who is a conceptual artist and a computer consultant at the Time Warner Interactive Group.

"As I was going out (of our house), I saw my father lying down in the driveway in a pool of blood," he said. "I had a deep spiritual experience. I felt a power of soul like I had never felt before . . . it was undeniable. At that point, I knew my father wasn't that body that everybody recognized as Medgar Evers. He was something else that was much bigger.

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