MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid revisits the legacy and marriage of Medgar and Myrlie Evers
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "How To Be A Civil Rights Widow" is a chapter title in a new book by my guest, Joy-Ann Reid, host of the MSNBC evening show "The ReidOut." The widow is Myrlie Evers. Her husband was Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who served as the NAACP's Mississippi field secretary and risked his life to push for voting rights, desegregation and freedom. Medgar and Myrlie were both from Mississippi. Myrlie constantly worried about her husband's and children's safety, with good reason. Their house was firebombed. Later, in June 1963, Medgar Evers was assassinated just outside the door of their home. She heard the gunshot and found her husband bleeding out. He was the first in a series of high-profile assassinations. Next came President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
Joy Reid describes her new book, "Medgar And Myrlie," as a love story between two Black people in Mississippi, their love for their children and the higher love it took for Black Americans to love America and to fight for it, even in the state that butchered more Black bodies via lynching than any other. The love story between Myrlie and Medgar Evers is also fraught with tension, with Myrlie objecting to how much he was away from home, leaving her wondering if he loved his work more than he loved his family, and often leaving her alone to deal with the constant phone calls threatening the lives of her family. After her husband's death, Myrlie became an activist, an in-demand public speaker, and eventually, the chairman of the board of the NAACP. She gave the invocation at President Obama's second inauguration.
Joy Reid, welcome to FRESH AIR. I see you so often on my TV.
JOY-ANN REID: Oh, thank you Terry, it is so wonderful to be here.
GROSS: It's a pleasure to have you here. You think, and rightfully so, I think, that Medgar Evers hasn't really gotten the recognition he deserves as an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. I think he's more famous for getting assassinated than for the work he actually did.
REID: That's true. I think that's true. And, you know, I think part of that is because of the just momentous year in which he was murdered, 1963. So many things happened in 1963 that kind of overwhelmed knowledge of what happened of what he did. You start with this landmark speech that President Kennedy gave hours before Medgar was assassinated in front of his home, a speech in which John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, was echoing the language that Medgar Evers, a fellow World War II veteran, was using in order to push for civil rights and change in Mississippi. Then he is assassinated. The world paid profound attention to it for that moment. But then later that summer, you have the march on Washington, the bombing in Birmingham that killed four little girls. And then at the end of that year, you have the assassination of the president of the United States. Those things alone overwhelmed the knowledge of Medgar Evers just in the moment.
And then you have, two years later, Malcolm X being assassinated. And then five years after Medgar, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. And then in between, you've got Freedom Summer and the assassinations of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. So there's so many events that happened both in Mississippi and nationally that his legacy sort of became overwhelmed.
GROSS: Give us an overview of the work that he did.
REID: So you start with Emmett Till, at the time, most high-profile lynching that had taken place in America. This was a 14-year-old boy who had family in Mississippi, had roots in Mississippi, but lived in Chicago, came down for the summer to be with his cousins. He's murdered for sassing a white woman. It is only because of Medgar Evers that there was ever a trial, because typically in the South, when a Black person was murdered by a white person or white people, nothing happened. It wasn't, in fact, illegal in a sense, to kill Black people. You could kill at will if you were white because the justice system would never hold you to account.
But Medgar really believed that people should be held to account for killing Black people, for destroying Black bodies and Black lives. He is the one who went into the Delta to compel terrified sharecroppers, including Emmett Till's uncle, to testify against white men. He, of course, then had to spirit those people out of the state of Mississippi. But it is only because of him that the world really knew about this case and that case ever went to trial.
You talk about Kennedy's speech. Kennedy is literally echoing the man who had been repeatedly telegraphing him from Mississippi, Medgar Evers, who was demanding - begging - for federal troops to come to Mississippi because Mississippians were being denied the basic right to vote.
GROSS: And then there's James Meredith. And Medgar Evers had applied to Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. And, of course, he was denied admission because he was Black. They were not accepting Black students. So when James Meredith applied, testing desegregation, it was Medgar Evers who went right to his support. What did he do to help Meredith get in?
REID: Well, James Meredith actually made the call to the NAACP to Thurgood Marshall from Medgar and Myrlie Evers' home. So he calls and, you know, it is Medgar that gets him representation from the NAACP after, you know, James Meredith is - he's a very special guy. I interviewed him for the book, and he's very caustic. And he gets into this argument on the phone with Thurgood Marshall and hangs up on him. And it's Medgar that says, you know what? We might want to call him back.
REID: And he talks James Meredith down, which was not easy to do. But his brother Charles was similar in, like, temperament. So he knew how to deal with someone like him. And he manages to call back and get James Meredith the NAACP lawyers that actually successfully get him through the court cases that get him admitted in a very violent, riot-induced way into Ole Miss.
GROSS: Medgar Evers was the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, but his approach often diverged from the organizations. The NAACP, under Roy Wilkins, defined its work as being work through the courts. But Evers didn't always want to work through the - I mean, he appreciated that the work was being done in the courts, but he thought more was needed. What were the kind of protests that he helped organize?
REID: Well, and, you know, in addition to being the field secretary, he was actually the first field secretary. They created the position for him as, in part, a way to discourage him from reapplying to Ole Miss. They saw in him an activist who had potential, but they really didn't want him to make this application himself. They were like, come and work for us. He went to New York, he interviewed with Roy Wilkins and they gave him the job. What they told him to do is go back to Mississippi and register people for NAACP memberships and register them to vote. But what he understood is that people weren't going to register to vote if they were being terrorized. You know, not only could you be evicted from the plantation where you lived if you tried to register to vote, you could be lynched for it. And so people were too scared. And he understood that what you needed first was people to develop the courage to move forward and demand their citizenship.
GROSS: So a lot of people in Mississippi were too afraid to register for the NAACP or to, you know, call out racism. But the people who were willing to do that were the high school students and the college students. And so Medgar Evers wanted to work with them. What did the NAACP say to that?
REID: They said no. (Laughter) Quite simply, they said this is not what we want. And Medgar was threatened with being fired multiple times because he believed that the courage that was needed was found in the youth. It was young people, quite frankly, like James Chaney, who, as a 15-year-old, was expelled from school for pinning an NAACP membership sticker on his lapel. He was part of these NAACP youth councils that Medgar was setting up all over the state. And so he's nurturing these young people who wanted liberation now. They didn't want to wait for court cases to be listened to by white people. They believe that they could get their liberation for themselves. And that courage absolutely existed in college students from Tougaloo and Alcorn and from high school kids. And he believed in them. And his bosses said, unacceptable. We're wasting money bailing them out of jail. Stop.
GROSS: I think it's interesting the way you get to some divisions within the civil rights movement at the time, not only between Evers and the NAACP, but Evers and groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality - groups that were coming down to Mississippi. He was concerned about the Freedom Riders coming down to Mississippi because he thought it would jeopardize the work that Mississippi civil rights workers and activists were already doing. What was he worried about?
REID: Well, I think part of it was that he had this fundamental belief that people needed to fight for liberation for themselves. They didn't need the courage imported in from the North, and that only when Mississippians themselves were fighting for their liberation would that liberation be real. Because those Northern activists were going to go home. When they were finished with their freedom summer, they could go back. Now, that didn't always happen, obviously. Goodman and Schwerner never went home, and they were taking risks, tremendous risks as well. But he just fundamentally believed it had to come from within the Mississippi community.
He also believed that they were just going to relearn the same lessons he had already learned. He had already worked in the Delta. He already had lived in the Delta. And they were just going to show up in these communities and find out how terrified people were, and they would have the same results he did - not being able to register people to vote. And that's exactly what happened.
GROSS: Expand on that. What happened?
REID: So Bob Moses and other activists came down. Of course, Bob Moses was this brilliant activist from New York and a math genius. And he comes down, and he winds up working in the Delta, actually using some of the infrastructure that Medgar had helped to set up in these NAACP satellite offices. And some of those same activists joined and helped out. But there were a lot of Northern activists that were working there as well. But when the numbers came in from how many people were actually being registered, the numbers were actually quite low. And Medgar was frustrated that he had already known that, and felt that the Northern activists didn't quite understand the kind of terror that they were dealing with.
GROSS: On the other hand, like, the Freedom Rides brought so much national attention to what was happening in the South.
REID: It absolutely did. And, you know, it's interesting because the Freedom Riders themselves really wanted Dr. King to be on those buses with them, because they thought that they needed his notoriety in order to get the attention. But it turned out white Southerners did the work for them by firebombing buses. By reacting with such tremendous violence and vehemence, it turned the national spotlight on the South. And the original destination of the Freedom Rides was New Orleans. But they didn't get through Alabama and Mississippi without tremendous headlines that were caused by the violence that was meted out upon them.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC weekday evening show "The ReidOut." Her new book about Medgar and Myrlie Evers is called "Medgar And Myrlie." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book, "Medgar And Myrlie," is about Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader from Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963, and his wife, Myrlie Evers, who constantly worried about her husband's safety. After his death, she became a civil rights activist and eventually became the board chair of the organization he worked, for the NAACP.
Medgar Evers fought in World War II. He was actually on Omaha Beach on D-Day. After he returned home, how did he see the U.S, and in particular Mississippi, differently than he'd seen it before?
REID: Well, you know, what's fascinating about Medgar Evers and all of those Black men who fought in World War I and World War II is that when they returned, they had traveled more widely than most white Americans had. He had seen Europe, a place where there was no de jure segregation, where he could have a white girlfriend, and he did, in France, whose parents completely approved of the relationship. He could walk around freely without fear of lynching, and despite the fact that they were - their units were still segregated and white officers and commanders still spoke to and treated Black servicemen as second-class citizens, they officially could not enforce Jim Crow in Europe.
And when Medgar came back, he was already someone who was interested in the world. He was kind of fascinated with the anti-colonial movements in places like Kenya. He came back even more convinced that Mississippi was not only not the world, it was an aberration in the world, and that Black people were meant to live the way he had been able to live freely in Europe. And while that didn't mean that he could bring his white girlfriend home to Mississippi - he certainly could not - it meant that he ought to be able to be treated as a man. And when he arrives back in Decatur, Miss., he gets on the bus in his full uniform and is told to go to the back of the bus. And he says, I'm not going to do that. I was willing to die for my country overseas, and I'm not going to come home and be treated as a second-class citizen. And he took the beating of his life, he said. But he was a different man after that.
GROSS: I want to get to an early part of his life story when he is exposed to a lynching of his father's friend, and I think this is a real, like, significant story. Tell us what happened.
REID: So, the Evers family knew a man named Mr. Tingle who lived in town, in the town of Decatur. And when Medgar was either 7 or 11, depending on whether he or Charles Evers, his brother, who was a very ostentatious fellow, was telling the story, they were walking to school, and they saw - passed by the bloody clothes of this gentleman who had been lynched for sassing a white woman, which was something that could get you lynched in the South, and particularly in Mississippi. And they had actually seen this gentleman being dragged through the streets earlier in that morning. And he was beaten. He was shot. His body was shot full of holes, and the clothes were left behind in the Decatur Fairgrounds as a message to every Black Mississippian that this could happen to you if you stepped out of line in any way. And that made an impression on him. He never forgot it.
GROSS: And it was his father who collected the body and brought him to the funeral home.
REID: Yes. His father's uncle had a funeral home. And so his father - who they called Crazy Jim because he was one of the few Blacks who did not bow down to white people, which made white people think he was insane, and they called him Crazy Jim - he picked the body up, took it to the funeral home, and Medgar asked him, could you be lynched that way? And his father, who, again, was the strongest person he knew, was a tough guy who would stand up to white people, he said, absolutely, I could be lynched. And it gave Medgar this sense of a lack of safety that his strong, big, you know, tall dad also couldn't protect him, couldn't protect him anymore than Willie Tingle could be protected. And it terrified him. And the thing that really enraged him was the silence, the fact that there were no marches, no protests. This gentleman was not spoken about in church on Sunday. He was sort of forgotten, as if he just vanished.
GROSS: Let's talk about how Medgar and Myrlie first met. They both went to the historically Black college Alcorn A&M, which later became Alcorn State University. He was 25 because he had already come back from the war, and she was 17. So that, at the time, seemed like a very big age difference. They were in different places in terms of fighting for equality. Describe her background.
REID: So Myrlie Evers - Myrlie Louise Beasley, was her original last name - she grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., which was a rural town, obviously very segregated, just like all of Mississippi. And she was raised by her grandmother and her aunt, who's also - whose name was also Myrlie. Her grandmother, in particular, was a huge influence on her. They taught her to be prim, to be proper, to speak properly, to play the piano. And so she was taught to be a good girl, and her grandmother and her aunt gave her three prohibitions when she went to college. They said, you are not to date an upperclassman, a football player or a veteran. Medgar was all three.
GROSS: When she and Medgar Evers started seeing each other, he said, you're going to be the mother of my children. I'm going to shape you into the woman I want you to be. That made me very uncomfortable. I don't like it when men decide they want to be involved with women who they can mentor 'cause that ends up being a very unequal relationship. You don't want to be your boyfriend or your husband's student. You want to be their equal. So what was your reaction when you heard that?
REID: Well, it's funny because Myrlie's reaction was, you got a huge job ahead of you, buddy. She was actually angry...
REID: ...That he said that. It made her angry, and he would say things all the time that would annoy her, right? Like, he was challenging to her in one sense, is that - you know, he would talk to her about the world, about - you know, about Kenya, about the Mau Mau who were, you know, fomenting revolution to get out from under the British Empire. And he would talk about the world and about the world beyond America, about Europe. And so in that sense, she was intrigued by him, but he also infuriated her. He would say things like that. Those are the things that would annoy her. But you have to remember, this was also the 1950s, when the idea of women being the equal of their husbands was not a thing. It was not a thing for white women, and it was not a thing for Black women. And so while it did infuriate and annoy her, it wasn't a deal-breaker. And that's in part because of the era.
GROSS: And she said, we argued like crazy. They fought over his work. What were her objections?
REID: Well, you know, Myrlie really did aspire to be a 1950s housewife. When she fell in love with this man, she thought they would go off into the sunset and he'd be an insurance salesman. And in fact, he literally got a job as an insurance salesman. And she thought - you know, she didn't want to be where they were living, Mount Bayou, which was in the Delta, which she hated - the bugs, the heat. She just couldn't take it. She wanted to be in the city. She was bored. She was miserable. She was lonely because he was out selling insurance all day.
But she was terrified because while he was selling insurance for T.R.M. Howard's insurance company - and T.R.M. Howard was a hugely influential man among Black civil rights activists. He was an activist, but also a businessman and a wealthy man. And she hated the fact that he was risking his life selling freedom and civil rights with insurance and telling these Delta residents, listen, you have rights accruable to you as citizens, while he's saying you also need to have these policies so that your family can survive economically. She was terrified, and she was angry that she felt he was choosing this work and this civil rights work over her and their children.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book about Medgar and Myrlie Evers is called "Medgar And Myrlie." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book, "Medgar And Myrlie," is about Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader from Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963, and his wife, Myrlie Evers, who constantly worried about her husband's safety. After his death, she became a civil rights activist and eventually became the board chair of the NAACP, the organization her husband had worked for.
One of the fights Medgar and Myrlie had was over dinner guests because he was always bringing home people from the NAACP and sometimes celebrities like Lena Horne, and she was expected to cook an extra dinner for them. And she said, we do not have the money for this. We're struggling. And he accused her of not knowing how to manage the money well, which just infuriated her because she was very, very careful with money. And is this the time that they actually came to blows?
REID: Absolutely. This is one of the most sort of, you know, striking and volatile sort of parts of their marriage. So at one point, she says to him, we're poor, we don't have the money to do this. And he accused her of not managing the money well. And she got so angry that she hauled off and she grabbed a frying pan and hit him with it, and he struck her back. And she was so shocked at this slap that it kind of made both of them stun into silence. And this was the low point of their marriage.
They wound up driving to her aunt and her mom's house. They were, at that point, living together because her grandma was getting older, and they were talking about divorcing, and they were at the point where they thought maybe we can't do this. And it was a member of the senior NAACP leadership who was like a father to them who actually counseled them as, like, a marriage counselor and surrogate father. And so there was a point at which they just decided they were going to try to make it work. And she decided she was going to try to make it work and support his work. And that came at the very, very end. Really not long before he died. The final year of his life was when she finally accepted that this was his mission.
GROSS: One day or night, I forget which it was, when Medgar was working, Myrlie was at home with the children, and the house was firebombed. A Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window. She was pregnant at the time. How did she respond when she realized what was happening and the house started to catch on fire?
REID: Well, Myrlie, you know, is starting to doze off. She hears this crash and goes out and sees fire on her front lawn. Obviously, she's incredibly startled, and there had been these cars that would pass by slowly rolling in front of the house day after day after day. And this time, someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail out of one of them. So at first, of course, she was terrified. Her next door neighbor, who was a good friend of hers, Jean Wells (ph), runs out and the two of them start turning the fire hose on the flames, and they put them out. Luckily, the children didn't even wake up, but it really did bring home to her that the death threats were really coming to roost. And this was just weeks before Medgar was actually assassinated. So it was a horrible premonition.
But then she felt angry because when the police arrived, the white police officers, they questioned her, looking at the gas can and essentially accusing her of doing it as a publicity stunt and faking it and then writing it off as just a joke that somebody had played. There was no empathy, there was clearly no determination to investigate and it just brought home to her once again that there was no justice for Black people in Mississippi.
GROSS: When President Kennedy gave a speech asking Congress to enact what basically became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after Kennedy's assassination, so when Kennedy gave this speech, you know, asking Congress to enact legislation giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities that were open to the public and to seek greater protection for the right to vote and more fully enforce the Supreme Court's ruling to desegregate the schools, that just, like, flared up racist attacks in the South. And so it was a win for Medgar Evers and the movement, but it also increased the threats, right?
REID: Absolutely. And, you know, the Klan absolutely sent a message in assassinating Medgar Evers literally hours after that speech. The thing that President Kennedy said that I think stung the racist South the most is that he said not only did he believe that Black citizens had the right to equal treatment and to equal access to accommodations, but that he planned to make it so with legislation. He promised to pass a bill.
Now, Medgar had actually been preparing his testimony to go to Washington to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about pushing for such a bill. Part of the work that he was doing and part of the constant telegrams to D.C. were demanding that they do something. And one of the things they wanted done was a bill. And so, you know, the message that was sent in the hours after the - that speech was that we're going to exact retribution. And there were actually three attacks that took place - or at least one that was did not come to fruition. But they did them so close in time that the FBI believed that these multiple attacks were a message from the Klan, including the assassination of Medgar Evers.
GROSS: The assassination happened one night while Myrlie and the children were home, they were in bed. She was expecting her husband. She hears this loud gunshot. She - you know, she recognizes this is trouble, you know, runs to the door and finds her husband's body at the threshold of the door. And he's bleeding, and it looks like he's bleeding out, which he was. Tell us more about what you know about that night.
REID: Well, you know, the children were - they got to stay up. You know, the three Evers children. Well, Van was a baby. He was only 3. But the two older children were allowed to sit up and watch President Kennedy's speech. And they were so proud to hear the speech because it used and echoed some of the language that their own dad had given in his landmark speech that he gave on Mississippi television, which was - had never happened. People had never seen a Black person, you know, speak on television before. And to hear President Kennedy echoing their father's words felt so great to them. And so they were excited. And they were allowed, then, to stay up a little later, the older two, who were 9 and 8, to watch a little bit more TV, a little bit of entertainment TV before their dad came home.
And a little after midnight, they hear their father's car pull up, and they're excited because he would normally bring them home sweets or Cracker Jacks, you know, something - a little gift when he would come home. And so they were excited, thinking, oh, what's he going to bring us? And all of a sudden, they heard the shot. And it wakes Myrlie up, who had been lying down on her bed. They were all in her room watching TV. And she was holding Van. And then he - they had all - she had started to doze off. It startles her awake, and all of the family kind of go to the door. Now, at first, the kids did what they were trained to do. They went to the floor. They did what their father had taught them. But when they hear their mother scream as she makes it to the door and sees her husband lying in the carport, this horrifying scream makes all the children run to her.
And so they're all standing there, watching him try to drag himself in this tremendous pool of blood that's later described as if somebody had butchered a hog. And he's got his key out in his hand, and he's trying to get to the door, but he can't. And she's got her little children standing there screaming, you know, begging him to get up. And then they hear a - they heard - they had heard a second shot, which they thought might be the gunman coming to kill them all. But it turns out that was Mr. Wells, the next-door neighbor, shooting in the air to scare the gunman away. And Mr. Wells and their neighbor across the street, whose husband was Myrlie's other best friend, they come with another neighbor, and they put Medgar on the mattress of Reena, the little girl's bed, and they put him on that mattress and take him to the hospital. And Myrlie never saw or spoke with him again until she saw him in a casket.
GROSS: There was a really large funeral procession after he died, and there was nearly a police riot because there were so many people. Would you describe that?
REID: You know, it was a tremendous outpouring. You know, some 5,000 people came, and they packed into the auditorium, the space where they usually did their mass meetings, but it was over capacity. It was blazing hot, almost 100 degrees in Mississippi, and people were outside who couldn't get in. And then afterward, they had gotten permission, the organizers of the funeral, to do a peaceful march with him because his body was going to be taken to a train station so that it could be sent to Washington, D.C. so he could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, something that also caused lots of rage among white supremacists in the United States. But this peaceful procession quickly turned violent when some of the young people who were marching at the back began to sing freedom songs.
GROSS: They were prohibited from singing at this funeral procession.
REID: Absolutely. They were told they could only do a quiet, mournful march, and they were not to sing freedom songs at all. But these young people started singing "This Little Light Of Mine." And it was Medgar's favorite freedom song. And once that started, the batons started flying, and the police reacted violently and started beating marchers, who then started running toward downtown Jackson. And before long, it was nearly a riot.
GROSS: Well, we have to take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy-Ann Reid, host of the MSNBC weekday evening show "The ReidOut." Her new book about Medgar and Myrlie Evers is called "Medgar And Myrlie." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP & JULIAN LAGE'S "IOWA TAKEN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book, "Medgar And Myrlie," is about Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader from Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963, and his wife, Myrlie Evers, who became a civil rights activist after his death.
You have a whole chapter called "The Rules For A Civil Rights Widow." What were the, quote, "rules" she had to learn or play by or create 'cause she was, like, the first famous civil rights widow?
REID: Right. So Myrlie Evers, you know, had to write this playbook for herself because Medgar Evers was assassinated two years before Malcolm X and five years before Dr. King. So there really wasn't another person that she could, you know, use as a template. The only thing closest to it was Mamie Till-Mobley. But Mamie Till was a mom, not a widow. And, you know, she also wanted to ensure that she was able to establish Medgar's legacy. And so anything you did, if you weren't dressed in certain way, if you weren't properly demure, if you seemed angry rather than just in grieving, if you seemed too loud or too soft or too anything, too, you know, but especially too angry, she knew that it would derail what she genuinely believed that Medgar deserved, which is to have his legacy established for the sacrifice that he had made.
GROSS: She both became famous, you know, very quickly because of the assassination and also very depressed. It's a difficult combination to deal with, depression and fame at the same time.
GROSS: And she's in - of course, in mourning.
REID: Absolutely. And, you know, living in that house made it worse - right? - because, you know, that house had been designed for security. It was - it's the only house on this block that used to be called Guynes Street at the time. And it was designed with no front door specifically for security. You had to come in the side door so that they could see who was coming. And so she already lived with this constant threat, this fear of threat. And then it happened. The thing they had feared the most happened. And she had to deal with that publicly because she's now a public figure.
You have, you know, she'd walk out her front door and Dan Rather would be standing there with a whole CBS group wanting to interview her. They were constantly in her house, in and out of her house. She had a LIFE magazine photographer following her all around as she's preparing to bury her husband. She couldn't bury him in the small plot that they had bought in Mississippi. It had to be done in D.C. so he'd be this sort of publicly buried person where she couldn't just go and sit with him. And it was painful for her. And she, some days, didn't want to get out of bed. She was using sleeping pills to try to get to sleep at night, and she was just lost in this sea of anger and rage and depression. And there were moments where she couldn't get out of it.
GROSS: But she does kind of overcome the depression. She becomes an activist. She becomes an in-demand public speaker. Eventually, she becomes the board chair of the NAACP. And she gets a lot of accolades. She's, like, Woman of the Year in Ms. Magazine in 1998, one of the hundred most fascinating Black women of the 20th century in Ebony in 1998. What came first for you - wanting to write a book about the Evers or meeting Myrlie Evers and deciding, oh, I should write a book?
REID: Meeting Myrlie Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams now. She did fall in love again, but Medgar Evers was clearly the love of her life. And that's what she told me that actually was the impetus for this book. The profundity of that love, the intensity of it, even 60 years later, is actually kind of mind-blowing when you talk to her. And I thought that was worthy of writing more about. And I also do feel that Medgar Evers is given short shrift in our historical memory. This was a great man. This was an incredibly brave man. And we live in an age of so much cowardice as people refuse to stand up for our democracy in even small ways because they're afraid of a tweet, you know, a mean tweet. And these people were facing the Klan, a statewide spy agency and the constant threat of being destitute. And they did it. And they were 20-somethings and 30-somethings who had this incredible courage. And so I wanted to write a book about love and about courage, and hopefully that's what I did.
GROSS: You know, it's sad to say - and you talk about this a lot on your show on MSNBC - people are facing a lot of death threats today...
GROSS: ...Because of their political views, especially coming from the far right.
REID: Absolutely. And, you know, I think about, you know, people who are managing to stand up regardless of that. Right? I don't agree with these people politically, but Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger - both former members of Congress who are willing to stand up and speak despite the death threats, right? I think about people on the other side of the aisle, the Tennessee 3 - Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson. How brave are they in a state like Tennessee where they are a super minority and where they are willing to protest in favor of protecting our children from gun violence and taking the consequences and being, you know, valorous in the face of the threats and the anger and the rage that they all get?
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut" and author of the new book "Medgar And Myrlie," about Medgar and Myrlie Evers. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Joy Reid, host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book, "Medgar And Myrlie," is about Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader from Mississippi who was assassinated in 1963, and his wife, Myrlie Evers, who eventually became the board chair of the organization he worked for, the NAACP.
I want to talk more about your background, 'cause I see you all the time and I don't really know that much about you. I do know that your father was from the Democratic Republic of Congo and came...
GROSS: ...To the U.S. for college and that your mother is from Guyana. So with a father from Congo and a mother from Guyana, what were their attitudes toward racial politics in America, and how did that compare to your friends and their parents?
REID: It's very interesting. We were some of the - there was only a small number of foreign blacks in the town where I grew up. I grew up - I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but when I was 2 years old, my mom, my sister and I moved to Denver, Colo., my big sister. She brought her little toddlers to Denver, and my brother was born there. And, you know, there were four African families, families with African surnames - the Lomenas (ph), the Okekes (ph), the Akias (ph), and there was one more family. I'm going to forget their last name, but there were only four of us, so we all kind of know each other, right? And we were the only Caribbean family. And while, you know, my father was African, he was an absentee father, so we really grew up as Caribbean kids. And my Caribbean cousins would come and stay with us every summer. And we were, like, a - we were sort of like our own - the Guynes Street gang we talk about in the book was the little block of all of the kids that grew up on Medgar's block. We were, like, the Carroll (ph) gang, right?
And the attitudes that my parents had were starkly different from each other. My father was a big Reaganite. He loved Reagan. He was a conservative. And he didn't really talk about race in America, but he was very focused on apartheid and on the opposition to apartheid because he worked in South Africa most of his career. He wasn't a great dad, but - so I would find other things to talk about him - talk with about - with him. And apartheid was one of them. And he was very deeply anti-apartheid, as was my mom. She was much more focused on the apartheid in America because when she came here from Guyana, she experienced racism, like, almost off the bat. And that was in New York, so you can only imagine how it was in the South. And she would talk about her experiences - not much, but a little bit. And I think her attitude was that it was almost like an illness, that she just didn't understand why people would spend so much time working themselves up about what Black people were doing.
GROSS: Your mother, who I understand you were very close to, died when you were 17. I think it was breast cancer.
GROSS: And you and your siblings were sent to your aunt, who parented you after that. And one of the changes in your life was that you had to go to church four days a week, which is something apparently you weren't used to. How did that change your life in one way or another?
REID: Well, it's interesting. I mean, I grew up very religious. My mother was a - you know, she was a good Methodist. I mean, she had changed us from Catholic to Methodist because the ceilings were lower. She was an Anglican when she came to the United States and took us to, like, the closest thing to it, a Catholic church. And my sister and I, as toddlers, we loved the echo. So we would, like, sort of make noise because we wanted to hear ourselves echo. And she said, oh, you know, we might want to go to the low-ceiling church. So we ended up in a Methodist church that was - you know, it was an hour in and out. You got home in time for the Bronco game. And it was sort of low-key church that was all about the red-letter parts of the Bible - love your neighbor, love the immigrant, that kind of thing.
But when I got to Brooklyn and my Auntie Dolly's church, it was fire-and-brimstone - it wasn't even Baptist. It was evangelical, and it was four nights a week - Bible study, young people night, regular church. And, you know, it was just on and on and on, multiple, multiple nights. And it was intense, and it was a lot more than I was used to. And so I guess the only way it changed me is it probably made me more secular and made me question a little bit more the sort of precepts of things 'cause I was very religious, but I definitely didn't think organized religion was necessarily for me.
GROSS: So what dilemma did that pose for you? Your aunt is generous enough to take you and your siblings in to her home, and at the same time, you're really uncomfortable with her way of doing religion. So, like, you want to not go to church four days a week, and you disagree with some of the principles that you're being taught, but you probably don't want to insult your aunt either, and she was so deeply faithful in that religion. So how did you balance wanting to assert, like, your independence and your own point of view while respecting your aunt?
REID: And also, I mean, I was in mourning, too, so I loved...
GROSS: Yes, right.
REID: ...Being with her.
GROSS: Of course.
REID: So it was difficult. I mean, the thing is, I was an obedient child. I went, and I did the four nights a week, and then when I felt like it wasn't necessarily for me and I'd been there for, you know, probably a little over - close to a year, I moved on my own, and, you know, got an apartment because, you know, my - the way I was brought up as a West Indian child is you do what your parents tell you to do or your auntie tells you to do, or you find your own place. And that was the choices that you ought to make. And so I decided to, you know, still see her all the time and be with her, and I love my Auntie Dolly, but I decided to live on my own. And I was kind of a solo kid at 18, living in my own apartment in Brooklyn, and it was an interesting adventure, and I had to grow up really quick.
GROSS: You were an obedient child. How did you learn to become disobedient?
REID: (Laughter) You know, I'm disobedient in my argument (laughter), but when...
GROSS: That's right. Yeah.
REID: ...But when it comes to my elders, I am all about respect and respecting my elder relatives. But in terms of - my mother always encouraged us to be disobedient in our thoughts. Like, she was one of those women who - what'd they say? - a woman who is complacent or a woman who is obedient makes no change. Like, my mom was that person. She was incredibly adventurous.
And she was disobedient in her own way. She left New York and went all the way to Denver to do her own thing. We used to do these endless car trips where we - she would pile the kids in, and we would drive, you know, all the way to Oaxaca in Mexico 'cause she was doing a thing. She just - we were portable. She took us with her everywhere that she went. We went all over the country in our station wagon. And so she was this adventurous soul, and I definitely inherited that from her.
And she encouraged us to think, to read. We would spend, you know, all of a weekend in the library being able to take whatever books we wanted and empowered us to choose books that we loved and to read and to think. She encouraged me when I said I wanted to be a writer. She bought me this old typewriter, and I would just bang out my little - what I thought were going to be bestsellers.
REID: And I would write them and wanted to be a novelist. And she just was so encouraging and just such a fan of us thinking. And, you know, she would throw these incredible dinner parties. And we were - you know, we weren't allowed to hang out the whole night, but we could come during the early part when she would have the dinner parties, and we could engage in conversation. We would talk politics. We could chop it up with the grown folks and give our opinions. And so she always encouraged her children to be opinionated, and I definitely obliged (laughter).
GROSS: Joy Reid, it's been great to talk with you. Congratulations on your new book, and thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR.
REID: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Joy Reid is the host of the MSNBC show "The ReidOut." Her new book is called "Medgar And Myrlie: Medgar Evers And The Love Story That Awakened America."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about a subject you probably don't think about - the freight rail system - until dangerous accidents, like the derailment in East Palestine that released noxious smoke into a community. Our guest will be Topher Sanders, who investigated the extensive safety risks and cover-ups within the freight rail system in a series of articles in ProPublica. I hope you'll join us.
To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram, @nprfreshair. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
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THE FREEDOM SINGERS: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Oh, everywhere I go, Lord, I'm going to let it shine. Oh, everywhere I go, Lord, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine. Everywhere I go, Lord, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Oh, I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine. Oh, I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine, let it shine. I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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