The scenes play over and over again in the mind of civil rights pioneer Myrlie Evers.
A white police officer in Minneapolis kneels on the neck of a black man on the ground who keeps saying, “I can’t breathe,” until he lies motionless.
White men gun down a young black man jogging through a Georgia neighborhood, telling police they were carrying out a citizens’ arrest.
With each new report, “my heart stops beating, and then the anger seeps in,” she said. “I say to God, ‘Has nothing changed after all this time?’”
These scenes mix with flashbacks, watching her husband, Medgar Evers, the field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, investigate the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was beaten and killed before his body was weighed down with a gin fan and tossed into the Tallahatchie River.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, there were more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings in the United States during the period between Reconstruction and World War II.
What happened in Minneapolis has resurrected painful memories, too, for Deborah Griffin, whose grandfather, Lamar Smith, was gunned down in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Mississippi, on Aug, 13, 1955, because he was registering African Americans to vote.
“He bled to death while people stood around and watched,” she said.
Despite the identification of his blood-covered killer, no one was ever prosecuted for his killing.
The video of Ahmaud Arbery being chased to his death near Brunswick, Georgia devastated Lisa McNair. On Sept. 15, 1963, Klansmen blew up a Birmingham, Alabama church, killing her sister, Denise, and three other girls.
After recovering from her sadness, she realized the answer is to “be proactive, get out and vote, and make sure all of our neighbors, friends and people we don’t know are registered to vote,” she said. “We don’t have time to check out. We’ve got to be vigilant.”
On a frigid January night in 1966, Dennis Dahmer watched his father, Vernon Sr., die defending his family from a Ku Klux Klan attack — all because he was helping African Americans register to vote.
These videos horrify and show “the dual standards of America,” he said. “It has had many names. Slavery. Jim Crow. Segregation.”
The current rioting and looting across the U.S. are detracting from protests, and he worries that instigators are “usurping a valid cause,” he said.
On the same June 12 night in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy told the nation that the grandsons of slaves were still not free, an assassin gunned down Medgar Evers in the driveway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi.
Myrlie Evers heard the shot, ran outside, saw her husband soaked in blood and screamed.
After his murder, her carport filled with neighbors, friends and curious onlookers. When two white teenagers wandered up, she cursed them and accused them of doing the deed. When Jackson police arrived, she accused them, too. “If I had had a machine gun,” she said, “I would have mowed them all down — every white person I could.”
In 1994, when a jury finally convicted her husband’s assassin, Byron de la Beckwith, she said she felt all of that anger and hate rushing out every pore of her body.
A quarter-century since that day, she is fighting to hold back her blazing anger, said Evers, now 87. “I lived through hell. It haunts me every day. I’m still alive. I still hurt. I’m still in pain.”
A 2019 study by the National Academy of Sciences shows that a young black man in America has a better chance of getting killed by police than he does of dying of diabetes.
Seeing these black men dying at the hands of law enforcement or those who claim to be enforcing the law causes Myrlie Evers to recall the dark days when many officers in her native state of Mississippi joined the Ku Klux Klan.
Medgar Evers investigated notorious Mississippi law enforcement officer Lawrence Rainey, who killed two African Americans in “self-defense” — only to get elected sheriff of Neshoba County.
Law enforcement officers in Neshoba County played a role in the KKK’s killings of three young civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Rainey, accused of being among the officers, allegedly told his fellow Klansmen who carried out the murders, “I’ll kill anyone who talks, even if it was my own brother.”
Goodman’s brother, David, said Rainey and others involved in killing the trio “thought nothing would happen to them — and so did the officer on George Floyd’s neck. They thought they had a right to kill because they always had.”
A third-generation civil engineer, Goodman said he sees “America’s structural democracy falling apart because we haven’t taken care of it. It’s infuriating because a lot of good people are trying to repair our democracy, while others are tearing it down. That includes extremists who are putting voter suppression laws into place to deny certain voters — including African Americans — equal access to the ballot box.”
When Chaney’s daughter, Angela Lewis, saw videos of the killings of Floyd and others, she thought of her grandmother, who said, “They threw my son away like he was a dog.”
The disregard “for a man’s life is what hurts most,” said Lewis, who works as a nurse and in ministry. “I cannot disregard a man’s life because I value my own, my family’s and even those that may be enemies.”
Floyd’s death reminds Schwerner’s widow, Rita Bender, that “black lives still are not valued by some sworn to protect,” she said. “How could a police officer hold his knee on the neck of a man gasping for breath? One who at most passed a counterfeit $20 bill. Is that the value of human life?”
The videos cause Myrlie Evers’ nightmares of the past to come hurtling into the present. “Ahmaud Arbery is out there exercising,” she said, “and because of the color of his skin, they kill him?”
She fears what might happen to her three grandsons now “at the ripe age to be killed because of their age and their color,” she said. “I am frightened for my country, the land of my birth, the land that my father fought for and the land that Medgar fought for before giving his life for freedom and justice in this country.”
More than ever, “America needs to wake up,” she said. “All the hatred that we knew has once again raised its ugly head.”
Jerry Mitchell is an investigative reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for MCIR’s newsletters here.
Email him at Jerry.Mitchell.MCIR@gmail.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Mitchell’s new book for Simon & Schuster, Race Against Time, details his reporting that helped lead to convictions in nine unpunished murders from the Civil Rights era. The book is now available in hardback as well as on Kindle and audio versions. Signed and personalized copies are available through MCIR.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Families of civil rights martyrs reflect on George Floyd's death