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Have No Fear:

The Charles Evers Story

Charles Evers and Andrew Szanton

There’s some untold history down in ‘Sippi. There have long been the familiar tales of whites-only fountains and bloated black bodies that float to the surface of muddy waters. We know of strange fruit and people who turned the other cheek only to be slapped on that side, too. The magnolia state has forever etched itself into the national memory as the citadel of American racism.

But curiously absent from these narratives of the South are stories like that of Robert Charles, a black laborer who, provoked by a beating from a white police officer, shot 27 white people in New Orleans. Or the long tradition of “bad Negroes,” who were the Southern forebears of Malcolm X. Jim Evers was cut from that tradition of badassedness, and his sons Charles and Medgar bore his imprint. Have No Fear, the autobiography of the man consistently referred to as “Medgar Evers’ older brother,” is part Bad Negro epic, part witness to the civil rights revolution, and fully a study in contradictions.

Charles Evers counted Nelson Rockefeller, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King among his friends. He picked up the mantle of his slain brother and tirelessly promoted the cause of civil and voting rights. He also ran numbers and whorehouses, bootlegged, and did just about anything else that would net him a dollar. He is a man deeply concerned about human freedom whose worldview is nonetheless steeped in sexism. At more than one point in his life story, Evers’ knack for timing hints at his opportunistic streak.

From the outset, the elder Evers was a mannish child, stepping on white toes and running afoul of the South’s racial etiquette. His consistently reckless behavior sprang from his father’s teaching that most racists were cowards and would back down when faced with a Negro who was willing to fight back. Thus his enduring credo: Have no fear. Though Jim Evers feared no individual, he never questioned the order of things or the South’s peculiarities; that would be left to his sons.

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Ironically, Charles Evers is much more proficient when it comes to detailing the ways of white folk than he is at describing the black community that surrounded him in Mississippi. Whites seem connected, part of a community with particular, albeit racist, interests. Blacks appear in his story as disembodied souls, drifters who happen to inhabit the same Delta locale. Not until the early days of the civil rights movement do blacks seem to have any sense of connectedness.

Charles’ and Medgar’s anti-segregationist views took the form of adolescent fantasies of leading violent racial uprisings. Where Charles and his younger sibling differed, however, was the priority each placed on race work. For Medgar, the cause was all-consuming; for Charles, it took a back seat to economic advancement—namely his own. His plan was to bide his time, make his money, and in his down time nurse Mau Mau dreams. The pursuit of cash is the unifying theme in Evers’ life and somehow figures into his journey from Mississippi into the Army during World War II, back to Mississippi, and then to Chicago, where he filters into the underworld. Along the way he establishes innumerable businesses, fathers children by three different women in rapid succession, and stares down every redneck in the Delta.

Humility is not Evers’ strong suit, and nearly every anecdote he relates ends with a high-testosterone display that humbles the various racists, Toms, and fools who inhabit his world. When a white man punches Medgar in face for sitting in the front of a Greyhound bus, Charles blows onto the scene, shotgun in hand, to conduct an on-site investigation. When the Klan hires a black man to lure him into a trap, Evers teaches him the basics of racial solidarity with the fat end of a Louisville Slugger. In the post-assassination days, his innumerable clashes with NAACP head Roy Wilkins nearly tie the group’s headquarters in knots regarding its Mississippi policies.

Though Myrlie Evers thought Medgar would never have wanted his hot-tempered, bootlegging brother to succeed him, Charles bristles at the charge of opportunism. But his overnight transformation from pimp to race man does seem a little too convenient to be motivated completely by altruism.

The chief indictment against Evers, though, is his support of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. The last chapters of the book decline into a sickening paean to Republican virtue. He speaks of welfare as a “sickness” and condemns the Democrats as a party controlled by lobbyists. Like many of his ilk, Evers looks back nostalgically on the ’60s and concludes that the movement worked and that the persistence of inequality is the fault of black people. In his world, those who deserve to already have overcome. He is sinfully neocon in his discussions of contemporary blacks.

There are more than a few factual errors in the book, a given for an autobiography, but less forgivable considering that his collaborator, Andrew Szanton, is a historian. Unquestionably, Evers has deep roots in the struggle for black advancement, but tracing those roots is more likely to turn up a Booker T. Washington than a Martin Luther King. CP