The nation honors its heroes by naming gray-hulled Navy ships after them. They sail the globe bearing such names on behalf of a grateful country. That’s why the christening of the fleet’s USNS Medgar Evers over the weekend by his widow seems appropriate. Sure, it happened because Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is a former Mississippi governor, and felt the honor for Evers, also a son of Mississippi, was warranted. And it sure beats naming a ship, as Mabus also did, for the late Rep. John P. Murtha.
Evers’ 78-year-old widow, Myrlie, smashed a bottle of champagne against the hull of the 689-foot, $500 million dry cargo vessel at the General Dynamics NASSCO shipyard in San Diego on Saturday. “I will not have to go to bed ever again,” she told the crowd, “wondering whether anyone will remember who Medgar Evers is.”
Evers saw combat in World War II in the European theater, before returning home to his second-class status as a black man in the Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan visited the family, according to his widow, telling Medgar’s father that his sons “will never be able to vote.” Medgar went to college, sold insurance, and began working for racial equality. His home was firebombed in May, 1963. The following month, he was shot and killed in his driveway. White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith died in prison in 2001 after being convicted of the murder, following 30 years of freedom after two all-white juries deadlocked on his guilt.
“In a real sense, he set us all free,” Mabus said of Evers at the christening. “His life was a mighty blow against the chains of racism that bound us all for too, too long.”
There is only one thing that could have made this better: instead of christening a ship out California way, wouldn’t it have been more grand if the Navy had selected to name a vessel for Evers built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Mississippi – with 11,000 workers, the state’s largest private employer – for the honor?