Medgar Evers and Hattie Carroll

The assassination of Medgar Evers on 12th June 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith and the murder of Hattie Carroll on 9th February 1963 by William Zantzinger, had strong reverberations throughout the USA at the height of and most crucial period of the Civil Rights Movement.

Bob Dylan wrote two classic songs about these two deaths that became iconic links to the Civil Rights Movement, the direct brutality of the lyrics astonished the activists and became an influential style in the art of protest song writing.

More about the songs later (below), let me first discuss the deaths of Evers and Carroll at the hands of White Supremacists.

Medgar Wiley Evers

Was a brilliant and effective Civil Rights activist and distinguished himself fighting in WWII. The fury over Evers’ assissination fuelled the March on Washington in August 1963, and his death is widely considered a pivotal event in the civil rights movement.

Born in 1925, Medgar Evers had followed (his brother) Charles into the Army during WWII. He was assigned to a segregated field battalion in England and France. Although some black soldiers refused to come back from France where they were treated as equals, some vowed to return fighting. As did Medgar he said to his brother after a racial incident:

“When we get out of the Army, we’re going to straighten this thing out”

In 1946, after three years of distinguished military service, Evers received an honourable discharge, finished high school, and enrolled in Alcorn College in Mississippi, where he met his wife Myrlie Beasley.

Alarmed at the level of poverty and destitution he found among the black populace of rural Mississippi, Evers decided to do something about it and joined the NAACP.

In 1954, a few months before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Evers volunteered to challenge segregation in higher education and applied to the University of Mississippi School of Law. He was rejected on a technicality, but his willingness to risk harassment and threats for racial justice caught the eye of national NAACP leadership; he was soon hired as the organisation’s first field secretary in Mississippi.

Evers soon began organising local NAACP chapters and coordinating boycotts of gasoline stations that refused to allow African Americans to use their restrooms. Evers’s organisational skills allowed him to bring together isolated groups of disillusioned individuals and meld them into a unified force.

The position catapulted him to what his wife Myrlie later called – No. 1 on the Mississippi ‘to-kill’ list. Evers garnered national attention for organising demonstrations and boycotts and for securing legal assistance for James Meredith, a black man whose 1962 attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi was met with riots and state resistance. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, his courage gained support from star activists Nina Simone, Lena Horne and spread right to the White House and John F. Kennedy.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself the target of a number of threats. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard left him vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home, and five days before his death, he was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.

Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first week of June 1963. A local television station granted Evers time for a short speech, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on Evers’ life increased.

On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from an integration meeting where he had conferred with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that stated, Jim Crow Must Go.

The events inspired Bob Dylans song Only A Pawn In The Game, unusually for a protest song, Dylan named the assassin in the lyrics.

Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from the rifle of Byron De La Beckwith. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing, dying at the local hospital 50 minutes later, who had at first refused him entry because of his colour. Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television in support of civil rights and just five months before Kennedy suffered the same fate.

Byron De La Beckwith a member of the White Citizen’s Council in Jackson, Mississippi and the Klu Klux Klan was acquitted twice in the 1960’s by two all White male juries. He was eventually convicted in 1994 (31 years later). The 1994 state trial was held before a jury consisting of eight black people and four white people.

New evidence included testimony that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally, and that he had boasted of the murder to others during the three decades since the crime had occurred. The physical evidence was essentially the same as that presented during the first two trials. They convicted De La Beckwith of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers, he was sentenced to life without the chance of parole.

Hattie Carroll

Was not a Civil Rights Worker and nor was she politically active. She sang in the over-45 person choir and was a member of the congregation’s ‘Flower Guild’, charged with beautifying the church. However, in the eyes of her killer she was a worthless ‘nigger’.

She was murdered by, William Zantzinger (not Zanzinger, as Dylan’s lyrics read) He was a wealthy 24 year-old white tobacco farmer and he murdered her because she could not serve him a drink fast enough. Living in the segregated South, Carroll was a barmaid in a Baltimore hotel. Using his cane, Zantzinger hammered about her head for five minutes.

Carroll was born in 1911, possibly on the 3rd March, she had 11 children (not 10 like Dylan wrote), lived in the lower-middle-class black neighborhood of Cherry Hill in Baltimore, and attended the Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church downtown. As with Medgar Evers Dylan named the murderer in the song, The Lonsome Death Of Hattie Carroll.

He was apparently having the time of his life at the hotel’s ‘Spinster’s Ball’, a drunken country mouse in the big city. His drinking and disorderliness quickly turned cruel, as he yelled racial epithets at the Black waiting staff. What’s more, he held onto his cane instead of leaving it at the coat check:

“I was having lots of fun with it, tapping everybody,” he said.

That tapping became more like hitting when it came to a few of the hotel’s Black Staff, including Hattie Carroll, he said:

“I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a nigger,” before he attacked her with his cane..

After this vicious attack she was unable to move her arm and her speech became slurred, she ran to the hotel kitchen for help. At that point, an ambulance was called. She died eight hours later at the hospital from head injuries.

Zantzinger was at first charged with murder, however he was eventually charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter.

Hoping to avoid a racially charged trial and national publicity, the defense opted to forego a jury, and won a change of venue to Hagerstown, Maryland. Many witnesses testified before a panel of judges, who found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter, but gave him a sentence of only six months. The sentence was handed down on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his, I Have a Dream speech in nearby Washington, D.C. If the sentence had been any longer, Zantzinger would have had to serve it in the state prison, but as it was, he could stay at the local jail. Moreover, he was released on bail to get his tobacco crop in before starting his sentence in September.

He received received 6 months in prison for the crime and a fine of $500.

Lyrics – The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
Bob Dylan

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’,
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station,
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
Your tears.

William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years,
Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres
With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him,
And high office relations in the politics of Maryland,
Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders,
And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was
Snarling,
In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.

But you who philosophise, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
Your tears.

Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen.
She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children
Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage,
And never sat once at the head of the table
And didn’t even talk to the people at the table,
Who just cleaned up all the food from the table,
And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level,
Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane
That sailed through the air and came down through the room,
Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle.
And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.

But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
Your tears.In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel,
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the
Level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and
Persuaded,
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em,
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom,
Stared at the person who killed for no reason,
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’.
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,

And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance,
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.

Oh, but you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all
Fears,
Bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your
Tears.

Lyrics – Only A Pawn In Their Game

Bob Dylan

A bullet from the back of a bush
Took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than the blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used, it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

From the poverty shacks,

he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their gameToday,

Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game

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