James Van Dyke Evers was only 3 when his father, Medgar, was assassinated in the driveway of the family's home in Jackson, Miss., in June 1963.
A sniper shot Medgar Evers in the back as he returned from a meeting late at night. Tensions had been running high because Evers, the first field secretary for the NAACP, was making headway in pushing the state's black citizens to register to vote. White Mississippians who had lived comfortably under segregation could feel the ground shifting beneath them — and they didn't like it.
Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers, regularly received death threats tied to Evers' work. They had created a drill for their two older children, Reena and Darrell: If you hear shots, drop to the floor and carefully crawl to the bathroom. Get in the tub. You'll be safe there. Watch out for your brother. The tub was a bulwark of porcelain-covered cast iron, strong enough to stop a bullet or protect from a firebomb.
So on the evening that Byron De La Beckwith fired a rifle at Medgar Evers as Evers was emerging from his car, Reena and Darrell Evers did what they'd been told. They took their little brother, Van, with them to the bathroom and placed him in the tub and ran outside when they heard their mother's cries. They encircled their father while he bled in the driveway. He died in a local hospital an hour later.
That was 50 years ago. Van Evers, now a handsome man with his father's height and his mother's charm, has had plenty of time to think about what's been taken from him.
"I feel as if I gave up both of my parents to the movement," he says in a park near his Pasadena home. "After Dad died, Mom was gone a lot. She had to support us, she had to carry on my dad's work, so she frequently wasn't there. We were alone a lot," he says, and family and friends looked after the siblings in their mother's absence.
But Van Evers is not complaining. His mother is his hero. "If I can do nearly as much as what my mother has done in family, togetherness, tightness of a unit, I've been successful," he says.
While Myrlie Evers-Williams — she remarried in 1975, to labor organizer Walter Williams, who died in 1995 — did continue her work in the movement that her first husband died for, Van Evers decided to go another route. He's a successful commercial photographer doing portraits, editorial work and still photography on television shows. He does not announce who his parents are, because he wants to make his own way through life.
It's a decision not everyone agrees with. He tells, with some irritation, of a very well-known movement veteran who chastised him for not picking up the torch.
"It's not my calling," he says simply. "There have been famous people who would say, 'Why aren't you doing what your dad did?' And I look at them and say, 'Well, guess you've not been in my position.' "
Evers is married with two sons, and he spends as much time with them as possible. "Having my dad taken from me — and I didn't get to do things like playing ball in the park, and all the rest of that stuff — I feel like the most important thing I can do for my kids is give them what I didn't get."
He may not have as many memories of his father as his older siblings, but Van Evers has inherited something significant: his father's love and aptitude for photography. Medgar Evers was known to take a camera with him almost everywhere he went.
Van Evers didn't know he shared his father's love of photography until a young neighbor handed his camera over and showed Evers how to work it. He was entranced: "I looked through the camera and took a picture, and it was magic. I could frame a life in that lens."
From that point on, he knew what he wanted to do.
Evers put his skill to good use in 2013, when his mother gave the invocation at Barack Obama's second inauguration. The family was invited to the presidential viewing stand to watch the inaugural parade pass before the Obamas and their guests. And Nolan and Alex Evers, 12 and 13, got to shake the president's hand as their grandmother looked on proudly.
Nice synergy, that: Obama, the 44th president of the United States, the first black president of the United States, was shaking the hands of the grandchildren of Medgar Evers, whose work made his historic victory possible.
And Van Evers captured it all with his camera.