I make it a point to remember the numbers. The first one is the section in Arlington National Cemetery of the grave I want to visit. The last four are the numbers on the back of the headstone.
I arrive at the cemetery shortly after noon on another sweltering summer day in which the mercury would climb close to 100. I go straight to the information desk and pick up a visitors guide. I read the gravesites the folks at Arlington had bothered to highlight for tourists.
I'm here to visit the gravesite of one Medgar Wiley Evers, the first Mississippi field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who from 1954 – when he took the job – to 1963, when he took an assassin's bullet in the back, waged a campaign to break the hold racists and segregationists had over his state. But I don't see his name on the visitors guide's list of graves I might want to visit.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice who once wrote of his “pleasure” in voting for the nationality of a law that permitted the forcible sterilization of a poor, powerless woman who was incorrectly classified as an “imbecile,” is listed. Recognition for Holmes, but none for the man who fought relentlessly for freedom in the closest thing America has had to a police state?
Sir John Dill, a World War II British field marshal, is on the list. The guide tells me where I can find the Confederate memorial at Arlington. A foreigner and a bunch of guys who fought to perpetuate slavery, but no mention of Evers?
“Is Medgar Evers buried here?” I ask the woman at the information desk.
“Yes, he is,” she answers and rifles through some index cards on the desk. After a few moments she writes down the section and headstone number for me and highlights area 36 on the map in the guide.
“Why isn't his name listed in the visitors guide?” I query.
“It'll probably be in the new one,” the woman answers. “They're coming out with a new one in about a month. A lot of 'em end up buried here who turn out to be famous.”
“Do many people ask about him?”
“Oh, yeah. A lot of people ask about him.”
I take comfort in that. It's not that there are no African-American gravesites listed in the visitor's guide. Daniel “Chappie” James, the first black four-star Air Force general, and heavyweight boxing immortal Joe Louis are listed. But I'm the stubborn kind of cuss who figures that if you have a major figure from the civil rights movement buried at Arlington, you tell folks where to find his grave.
I tell myself maybe I'm too obsessed about this, almost fanatical, in the Churchillian sense, meaning I won't change my mind and won't change the subject. I tell myself I've read For Us, the Living – Myrlie Evers-Williams' account of her life with Medgar – way too many times. I'm way too close to them both. To Medgar Evers, who died 39 years ago, and his widow, whom I don't know, have never met and have spoken to only once during a phone conversation from her home in Bend, Oregon.
But then I remember what Evers-Williams told me in that brief interview.
“I have, for years,” she said, “either been hurt, angry or a complainer about Medgar not getting the credit for being a pioneer who paved the way for Martin [Luther King Jr.] and others.”
She's right about that. Read For Us, the Living about how Medgar went boldly into Brookhaven, Mississippi, in 1955 after a black man named Lamar Smith was shot dead in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn for daring to vote. Evers went to investigate, as he did in dozens of beatings and murders of blacks throughout the state. Often, Evers-Williams wrote, he would send fugitives from Mississippi's terrorism out of state with money from his meager funds.
I'm reminded of all this and conclude that only a very few of the more than 250,000 buried here had as much courage, determination and heroism as Medgar Wiley Evers. He deserves recognition from the folks at Arlington, who seem to have forgotten him.
But at his gravesite, visitors have left their own memorial. Some placed rocks on the headstone. Larger rocks and pebbles have been placed at the base, the better, perhaps, for folks to recognize the gravesite. Officials of this cemetery might have forgotten who you are, visitors seem to say, but we won't.
The grave is 36-1431. You will visit it, won't you?
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard