Medgar Evers was assassinated fifty years ago, on June 12, 1963. Eudora Welty wrote a story in the voice of his killer. She said it was the only story she ever wrote in anger. An edited version with the identifying names removed ran in the New Yorker with the title, “Where is the Voice Coming From?” For the 50th anniversary of Evers’ death, The Clarion Ledger got permission to run Welty’s original story.
Jerry Mitchell, an investigative reporter for The Clarion Ledger, has opened many cold cases from the Civil Rights era. He interviewed Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith, in prison. On NPR, Mitchell said Beckwith was the most violently racist man he’d every spoken to—Eudora got it right.
From the Unknown by Eudora Welty
I says to my wife, “Just reach and turn it off. And be quiet. You don’t need to set and look at a black nigger face no longer than you want to or listen to what you don’t want to hear. It’s a free country.”
That’s how I give myself the idea.
I says, I could find where that nigger lives without a bit of trouble.
And I ain’t saying it might not be pretty close to where I live. The other hand, there could be other reasons for knowing a place in the dark. It’s where you all go for the thing you want most when you want it. Ain’t that right?
The First National Branch Bank sign tells you in lights all night long, even, what time it is, and how hot. When it was mid-night, and 92, that was me going by.
So leave Five Points at the Rotisserie (“Come As You Are,” ha ha), and ride out Delta Drive, past Jackson Surplus & Salvage, not much beyond the Yum Yum Steak House and the Trailer Camp, not as far as where the signs commence to say Live Bait, Used Parts, Fireworks, Peaches, Sister Roberts Reader & Advisor, stop before you hit the city limits, and duck back sharp towards the railroad. And his street’s paved.
I knowed I could find it without no trouble. And there was his light on, waiting for me. In his carport, if you please. His car’s gone. He’s out planning some further mischief, like I thought he’d be. All I had to do was pick my tree and get behind it. I don’t suppose I even had unduly long to wait.
Now it wasn’t no bargain I’d struck, it wasn’t no deal.
I heard what you heard about Big Red Hydrick. Sure everybody knows about Big Red Hydrick. Big Red he got word to the Governor’s Mansion he’d go up yonder for him and shoot that nigger Meredith clean out of school, if he’s let out of the pen to do it. Old Ross turned that over a time or two in his mind before saying him no, it stands to reason.
I ain’t no Big Red Hydrick, I ain’t in no Pen, and I ain’t ask Governor Barnett to give me one thing. Unless he wants to give me a pat on the back for the trouble I went to this morning. But he don’t have to if he don’t want to. I done what I done for my own pure-D satisfaction.
As soon as I heard the wheels, I knowed it wouldn’t be no different from what it turned out. That was him and bound to be him. The right nigger heading in a new white car up his concrete driveway to his carport with the carport light on, shining. I knowed it when he got out to go in the house. I’d have knowed him even without the car and the light, and the house waiting for him. I knowed him like I know this is me now. I knowed him even by his listening back.
Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything but his picture, never seen his face any time at all and didn’t have to, want to, need to, not even yet, never hope to and never will and never can! I didn’t see Evers ever. But there was no question in my mind.
He was the one.
His back was fixed, fixed on me like a preacher’s eyeballs when he’s yelling, “Are you saved?”
He’s the one. I’d already brought up my gun, I’d already aimed it. And I’d already got him — too late for him or me to turn an inch.
Something dark like the wings of a bird spread on his back and pulled him down. He climbed up once, like a man under a sheet. And I mean it was a sheet of blood, and like blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back. Didn’t get no further than his door. And fell to stay.
He was down. He was down, and a ton load of bricks on his back wouldn’t have laid any heavier. There on his paved driveway of poured concrete, yes sir.
And it wasn’t till that minute that a mockingbird quit singing. He didn’t hush till I let go of my load. He’d been sitting there singing, up my sweetgum tree. Either he was up early, or he hadn’t never gone to bed — he was like me. I was on top of the world myself. For once.
I says, “Medgar? There was one way left, for me to be ahead of you, and stay ahead of you, by Christ, and I just taken it. Now I’m alive and you ain’t. What about that, Medgar?” I said, “You seen to it, didn’t you?”
It was mighty green where I stepped close, where he’s laying in his ring of light. That nigger wife of his, she wanted nice grass! I bet my wife would hate to pay her water bill. And her electric bill. I believe the woman was in there, keeping awake.
There wasn’t a thing I been able to think of since that would have made it to go no better. Except a cheer to my back while I was putting in my waiting. Going home, I seen what little time it takes out of your life to get a thing done you really want to do. It was 12:34, and while I looked it changed to 35. And the temperature stuck right there. All that night it stood without dropping, 92.
When my wife’s been on the job, she’s looked a little too long at the newspaper.
Now she says, “They been asking that: Why somebody didn’t load ’em a rifle and get some of these agitators out of the way. Didn’t the fella already say it’d be a good idea? The one that writes a column ever’ day?”
I says to my wife, “Find some way where I don’t get the credit.”
“Well,” my wife says, “didn’t the skeeters bite you? “Yes.” She says, “He said do it for Jackson.”
I says, “Jackson never done nothing for me. And I don’t owe nothing to Jackson. I didn’t do it for Jackson. Didn’t do it for Mississippi. Didn’t do it for you. Hell, any more’n I’d do something-or-other for them Kennedys! I done it for my own pure-D satisfaction.”
“It’s going to get him right back on TV,” says my wife. “You watch for the funeral.”
I says, “You didn’t even leave the door light on. So how was I even supposed to get home or drive up in the front yard?”
“Well, here’s another good joke on you,” says my wife next. “The N. double-A.C.P. was already fixing to fire that nigger you shot. Says he was too easy on the white people. Why couldn’t you waited? You could of got you somebody better. That’s what they’ll say.”
I ain’t but one. I reckon you have to tell somebody.
Finally, “Where’s the gun then, what did you do with our main protection?” my wife says.
I tells her, “It was scorching! It was scorching hot! I wish you’d laid your finger to that gun!” I said, “It’s laying on the ground in rank weeds, cooling itself off now.”
“You dropped it,” she says.
And I told her, “Because I’m so tired of ever’thing in the world being so hot to the touch! The doorknob, the keys to the car, the bed sheet, ever’thing, it’s all like a stove lid. There just ain’t much that’s worth holding onto no more,” I says, “when it’s a hundred degrees in the shade by day and by night not a whole lot of difference. Unless it is a gun.”
“Then trust you to drop it,” my wife says.
“Is that how no-count I am?” she makes me say.
“Cheer up, here’s one more joke before I go,” says my wife. “Heard what Caroline said? Caroline said, ‘Daddy, I just can’t wait to grow up, so I can marry James Meredith.’ I heard that in the place I work, one richbitch making another one laugh.”
“At least I kept some dern teen-ager from North Jackson from getting there and doing it first,” I says. “Driving his own car.”
On TV and in the paper, they just know the half of it. They know who Medgar was without knowing who I am. His face was in front of the public before I shot him, then after I shot him there it was again — the same picture. And none of me. I ain’t even got one. The best that newspaper could do for me was offer a reward for finding out who I am. Whoever shot Medgar is worth a good deal more than he is, right now.
But by the time I was moving around uptown, listening to what they had to say, (that pavement in the middle of Capitol Street was as hot to my feet as the barrel of my gun!), the first thing I heard was the N. double-A.C.P. done it themselves, killed Medgar, their own man. And they proved it by saying the shooting was done by a expert (I should hope to tell you it was!) and at just the right time, to get the whites in trouble.
“They’ll never find him,” a man trying to sell me roasted peanuts tells me to my face.
You can’t win.
And it’s hot.
It looks like the town’s on fire already, wherever you go, on every street, with crape myrtle trees and mimosa trees blooming their heads off. And a thousand cops everywhere you go, almost too young to start shaving, but streaming sweat. I’m tired of cops.
I was already tired of seeing a hundred cops getting us white folks nowheres. I stood on the corner and I watched them babyface cops loading nothing but nigger children into the paddy wagon, and they come right out of a parade and into the paddy wagon singing. And they got inside without providing a speck of trouble, and their hands held little new American flags, and all the cops could do was knock them flags a-loose from their hands, that was all, and give ’em a free ride. And children can just get ’em more flags.
Everybody: it don’t get you nowhere to take nothing from nobody unless you make sure to take it for keeps, for good, for ever and ever amen.
I’ll be glad to see them brickbats for a change, time they come flying. Pop bottles too, they can come flying if they want to. Hundreds, all to smash. I’m waiting on ’em to bring out them switchblade knives, like in Harlem and Chicago. Watch TV long enough and you’ll see it to happen on Farish Street. Here it’ll come pouring, because it’s in ’em.
I’m ready myself for that funeral.
Oh, they may find me. May catch me one day in spite of ’emselves. (But I grew up in the country.) May try to give me the electric chair, and what that amounts to is something hotter than yesterday and today put together.
But they better be getting careful. Ain’t it about time us taxpayers starts to telling the teachers and the preachers and the judges of our courts how far they can go? I’d like some of those to really hear my wife.
I might even sneak old Ross in to be my lawyer, if ever should come a little trouble. How about that, Ross? I sure as hell voted for you.
I ain’t going to shy if they do come after me. I ain’t going to help ’em none, either.
It’s too hot.
And anyways, I seen him fall. I was the one.
So I reach me down my guitar off the nail. Cause I’ve got me a guitar, what I’ve always kept, and I’ll never drop that, and I set in my cheer, with nobody home but me, and I start to play, and sing a-Down. And sing a-down, down, down, down. Sing a-down, down, down, down. Down.
Reprinted by The Clarion Ledger with permission of Eudora Welty LLC and Russell & Volkening Inc., as agents for the author’s estate, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.