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Civil Rights Turmoil In Verse: Retelling Medgar Evers' Story

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."

Interview Highlights

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.

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