By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Racial barriers have been broken during the half century since Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated but economic disparities remain, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Thursday at an Evers memorial event in Lorman, Miss.
Mississippi remains one of the poorest states in the nation, and its unemployment rate for black residents is significantly higher than that for whites.
“The vertical gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even wider,” Jackson said during a luncheon at Evers’ alma mater, Alcorn State University.
The luncheon was shown live on the university’s website. It was one of several events held in Mississippi this week to commemorate the legacy of Evers, who was slain outside his north Jackson home on June 12, 1963. He was 37.
Evers grew up in Decatur, Miss., and fought in World War II before playing football and earning a degree from Alcorn State University. He graduated in 1952.
In 1954, after being rejected at the University of Mississippi law school because he was black, Evers was hired as the first Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
On Thursday morning, Alcorn State unveiled a larger-than-life bronze statue of Evers on the rural campus. It was sculpted by Ed Dwight, whose public art portfolio includes the Alex Haley/Kunta Kinte Memorial on the city dock in Annapolis, Md., and a sculpture of Frederick Douglas in Anacostia, Md.
Alcorn State also presented Medgar Evers Torch of Justice awards to two people. One went to Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, who moved back to Mississippi, from Oregon, last fall to begin teaching at the university, which she also attended. The other went to longtime civil rights activist Andrew Young, a former congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor.
Young, who spoke by video feed from another state, recalled that he was in Birmingham, Ala., working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when he heard Evers had been killed. He and others rushed to Mississippi to get Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists out of jail in Winona, where they had been taken days earlier after attempting to integrate a bus station. Hamer and the others had been beaten while in custody.
Speaking of Evers, Young said Thursday: “The bullet may have killed his body, but it released his spirit.”
Evers-Williams, whose second husband, Walter Williams, died of cancer in 1995, thanked Alcorn for the Torch of Justice award, and for a slide show that included many black-and-white photos of Medgar Evers, accompanied by music.
“I fell in love with the man all over again,” she said.
During his speech, Jesse Jackson told Evers-Williams: “We thank God for the redemptive blood of your husband.”
A white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried twice for Evers’ slaying in 1964, but all-white juries deadlocked without convicting or acquitting him. After a reopened investigation, Beckwith was convicted of murder in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison. He was 80 when he died in custody in 2001.
Restaurants, schools and other public facilities are integrated, and black people in the Deep South no longer have to use separate water fountains or sit in balconies during movies, as they did 50 years ago. But, Jackson said Mississippi spends less money on its public schools than most other states, has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and is “attempting to undermine Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,” an apparent reference to a proposed state law that would require every voter to show photo identification at the polls.
Mississippi voters approved a voter ID state constitutional amendment in November 2011, and legislators passed a bill in 2012 to put the photo ID plan into practice, but both proposals are still pending at the U.S. Justice Department. Like most other states with a history of racial discrimination, Mississippi is required to get federal approval for changes in voting laws or procedures.
Economic Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank, reported in May that for the fourth quarter of 2012, the unemployment rate for black Mississippians was 14.3 percent, while the rate for white Mississippians was 5.4 percent.
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