Civil Rights Turmoil In Verse: Retelling Medgar Evers' Story
A new book of poetry narrates the life and death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers through a series of imagined monologues. Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. In that role, he organized boycotts, investigated and brought attention to the murder of Emmett Till, and helped James Meredith integrate the University of Mississippi.
Evers was gunned down in his Jackson, Miss., driveway by KKK leader Byron De La Beckwith in 1963. But it took more than 30 years for De La Beckwith to be convicted of his murder.
Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers uses the imagined voices of people in Evers' life to re-create one of America's most volatile time periods. The characters include those closest to Evers — his widow Myrlie Evers and his brother Charles Evers; and those who hated him — De La Beckwith and his first and second wives, Willie and Thelma De La Beckwith.
Author Frank X Walker tells Celeste Headlee that he wanted to "present both sides of this story in a way that people who didn't know this story really understood it on an emotional level."
On why the book is called Turn Me Loose
"Turn me loose" was actually the last phrase or set of words that Medgar uttered. He sat up on the hospital bed and said, "Turn me loose," and then collapsed, and that was it for him. I already made a decision that I would not have him speak through a poem in this collection, but I wanted him to still be present, and that was, for me, a nice frame to put his voice into and to let it drive the story and the narrative.
On imagining the voice of Byron De La Beckwith
It's hard to imagine or even try on the skin of somebody who hated everything that I am. ... It was really important to me to make sure that he didn't come across as one-dimensional. I really wanted him to be human. I wanted him to be so human that other people could, you know, find out how far away or how close they were to him.
Excerpt from Turn Me Loose
"Sorority Meeting" — imagined voice of Myrlie Evers speaking to Willie and Thelma De La Beckwith
My faith urges me to love you.
My stomach begs me to not.
All I know is that day
made us sisters, somehow. After long
nervous nights and trials on end
we are bound together
in this unholy sorority of misery.
I think about you every time I run
my hands across the echoes
in the hollows of my sheets.
They seem loudest just before I wake.
I open my eyes every morning
half expecting Medgar to be there,
then I think about you
and your eyes always snatch me back.
Your eyes won't let me forget.
We are sorority sisters now
with a gut wrenching country ballad
for a sweetheart song, tired funeral
and courtroom clothes for colors
and secrets we will take to our graves.
I was forced to sleep night after night
after night with a ghost.
You chose to sleep with a killer.
We all pledged our love,
crossed our hearts and swallowed oaths
before being initiated with a bullet.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
A new book of poetry focuses on the life and death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers through a series of imagined monologues. Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. He organized boycotts to end segregation and helped integrate the University of Mississippi. But he was gunned down in his driveway by a white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in 1963. A new book called "Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers" re-creates the voices of those closest to Evers - his wife and his brother, and also his killer. Author Frank X Walker joins us now. He's the current poet laureate of Kentucky and an associate professor of English at the University of Kentucky. Frank, thanks so much for being with me.
FRANK X WALKER: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: Perhaps the best way to describe your motivation for writing the book is to have you read the very first poem.
WALKER: Sure it's called "What Kills Me," and this is imagined in the voice of Myrlie Evers, his widow. "When people talk about the movement as if it started in '64, it erases everybody who vanished on the way home from work or school and is still listed as missing. It erases the pile of recovered bodies, some burnt, shot, dismembered, some beaten just beyond recognition. It mutes every unsung voice in Mississippi that dared to speak up, fully understanding the consequences. When people talk about the movement as if it started in '64, it erases his entire life's work, it means he lived and died for nothing. And that's worse than killing him again."
HEADLEE: In this book you are imagining the voices of, as we mentioned, Medgar Evers' widow, his killer, the killer's wives - wife and former wife. What was the most difficult voice for you to wrap your head around?
WALKER: Oh, easily it was Byron De La Beckwith's voice and sentiment. You know, it's hard to imagine - or even try on the skin somebody who hated everything that I am.
HEADLEE: Where you tempted - or did you intend to create a voice that made him contemptible because I found that there was some empathy there in - not empathy for what he did or who he was, but as a human being?
WALKER: Well, it was really important to me to make sure that he didn't come across as one-dimensional, that I really wanted him to be human. I wanted him to be so human that other people could, you know, find out how far away or how close they were to him. And to really present both sides of the story in a way that, you know, people who didn't know the story really understood it on an emotional level, not just the details of the events but, you know, maybe the psychological and emotional backdrop that precipitated all the events that led up to the assassination, and that kind of anger and violence that was part of the civil rights era.
HEADLEE: I found it very interesting that you included the voices of his wives. Was the purpose of that to fill out the character of De La Beckwith?
WALKER: Using the wives did two things - it allowed me to have wives on both sides of the coin - Myrlie Evers as a voice of good and the other two wives, who were also loyal to their husband, but represented this other side of the equation.
And I really felt like the wives helped both men seem more whole and it gave some objectivity that - you know, the only reason you don't hear from Medgar himself in the entire collection is that everybody is speaking about Medgar indirectly. And the sum of their voices and opinions really give you the whole story, and I think give you a more accurate depiction of who he was and who all the men were just by listening to what everyone else had to say about them collectively.
HEADLEE: So you were re-creating these voices based on, I assume, readings or watching news footage.
WALKER: A lot of research. The more research you can do the easier it is to try on that skin that you don't know, especially if it was somebody who lived in a different time period or who looked and behaved differently than you do.
HEADLEE: I wanted to talk about music at this point. You mentioned music and song titles in a lot of the poetry, and in a certain way it helps to re-create the scene of the time. And there was a special on your book done by the University of Kentucky's public radio station, WUKY, and they included a lot of music from the time period - Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Nina Simone. But there was this one that surprised some of us, and take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING LOW, SWEET CHARIOT")
HEADLEE: I would imagine, Frank, that if people were to put together a playlist of songs inspired by Medgar Evers, they would not include Johnny Cash.
WALKER: Well, I think so, but I think if the playlist was about everybody in the story, including De La Beckwith, they would have to put Johnny Cash. You know, I can't imagine De La Beckwith sitting and listening to Ray Charles in as loving a way as he might've embraced Johnny Cash.
I think that Johnny Cash clearly represented a different side of the community. And he was also considered a rebel, and I think that he would've looked at Johnny in a way that - the same way that, you know, when we pick our musical heroes that it's almost like creating your own theme music.
HEADLEE: Right, although, we should be clear - Johnny Cash I'm sure in no way would want to be associated with Byron De La Beckwith. That admiration only went one way.
WALKER: Oh, I'm sure.
HEADLEE: So it's been 50 years since Medgar Evers' assassination. This is an event in history that has been written about quite a bit. What were you hoping - what new piece of information or understanding were you hoping to bring?
WALKER: Well, unfortunately I wasn't trying to do anything new. I really was trying to erase something that I had encountered in my classrooms. Almost none of my students knew who Medgar Evers was, and I was shocked by that. And when I polled them about assassinations from the time period, you know, they could all recall at least hearing about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and at least one Kennedy, but they'd never heard of Fred Hampton, never heard of....
HEADLEE: Emmett Till?
WALKER: I don't think they think of Emmett Till as a political assassination. And a lot of them also did not know the Emmett Till story until Treyvon Martin. And it was only putting the two together could they really understand that even Trayvon was not a brand new situation. But it allowed them to understand this kind of repetitive event that's been happening in American history that has violence at the core of it.
HEADLEE: And for all those people out there who maybe also don't know who Medgar Evers is, maybe you can explain the title of the book - it's called "Turn Me Loose," why is it called that?
WALKER: "Turn Me Loose" was actually the last phrase or set of words that Medgar uttered. He sat up on the hospital bed and said turn me loose, and then collapsed and that was it for him. And I already made the decision that I would not have him speak through a poem in this collection, but I wanted him to still be present. And that was, for me, a nice frame to put his voice into and to let it drive the story and the narrative.
HEADLEE: Maybe you wouldn't mind, as we close our interview out, leaving us with another poem. And let me leave the choice up to you. If we're going to walk away from this conversation with a poem, what would you read for us?
WALKER: Well, I'll read the - I think the poem that's a surprise to people because it's in the voice of the bullet - supposedly objective - called "One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead." "Both of them were history, even before one pulled the trigger. Before I rocketed through the smoking barrel hidden in the honeysuckle. Before I tore through a man's back, shattered his family, a window and tore through an inner wall. Before I bounced off a refrigerator and the coffee pot.
Before I landed at my destined point in history next to a watermelon. What was cruel was the irony, not the melon, not the man falling in slow motion, but the man squinting through the crosshairs, reducing the justice system to a small circle, praying that he not miss and sending me to deliver a message, as if the woman screaming in the dark or the children crying at her feet could ever believe a bullet was small enough to hate."
HEADLEE: The book is called "Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers," written by Frank X Walker, poet and professor. He joined us from member station WUKY in Lexington, Kentucky. Frank, thank you so much.
WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.