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Published in the Republican April 25, 2012

I’ve been in airports a lot lately. Most are undistinguished; most also have unremarkable names. You know exactly where you are when you fly in and out of airports with straightforward names like Miami, Dallas, or Philadelphia.

Some airports are, however, different. You can smile when arriving in Oklahoma City. You see, you’re landing at nothing less than Will Rogers World Airport when you get to Oklahoma. Fly into Burbank and you’ll be at Bob Hope Airport. Head to the Pennsylvania town of Latrobe and you’ll arrive at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. Enjoy the golf!

It’s the airport down in Jackson, Mississippi that has a name with another kind of importance.

When I flew to Jackson recently, I barely paid attention to the name of the airport. The three letter code for the airport (JAN) was as unassuming as could be. As soon as I left my plane and entered the terminal, I was set on getting to my final destination. Like most travelers, my first priority was to be in and out of the airport as soon as possible.

Of course, nothing goes quite so smoothly in life, and so I soon found myself waiting in a long line at the car rental. I had to stand there long enough to take a closer look at the airport.

That’s when I noticed signs at the exits presenting the full name of the airport. I realized that the airport has a hyphenated name. It’s not Jackson International Airport. It’s Jackson-Evers International Airport.

The name stopped me in my tracks. Jackson-Evers….I knew I was in Jackson, MS. That was easy. It was the Evers connection that stopped me, and then I remembered what I had forgotten. Jackson wasn’t just any town. It wasn’t just the capitol of Mississippi. Jackson was also the city where the civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in 1963.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that I wasn’t passing through a random terminal building anywhere in the United States. I was standing in a place with real history. This was the community where Medgar Evers had lived when he was field secretary for the NAACP. This was the state where Evers, an African American, was denied admission to the University of Mississippi Law School back in 1954. Although Evers filed a lawsuit against the university, he himself never received admission. But six years later when another African American, James Meredith, tried to enroll at the university, Evers was among those who mentored Meredith through the process that led to his successful enrollment. Evers was an outspoken proponent for racial justice.

That is why Evers increasingly became the target of white supremacist threats and attacks. On May 28, 1963, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his home. Two weeks later he was nearly run down on the street. On June 12, 1963, just hours after President Kennedy gave a speech on national television in support of civil rights, Evers was shot in the back. He died less than an hour later.

And everyone more or less knew who was responsible. Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the local KKK, was arrested for the murder less than two weeks later. Juries composed solely of white men deadlocked twice that year on De La Beckwith’s guilt. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that De La Beckwith was brought to trial based on new evidence. On the third go r ound, he was finally convicted for what he had done.

It is a stunning story, and in early 2012, there I was standing, you might say, on hallowed ground. I was in the Jackson-Evers International Airport.

I rented my car, of course. I found the interstate within minutes and was on my way for a busy weekend.

But, for a few moments then and now weeks later, I’ve been touched by the power of history and the unlikely path some people take to heroism. During this busy year for presidential politics, it’s easy to be distracted. Rushing from airports to the thousand destinations in our lives, it’s also easy to forget.

That is why I suggest that if you happen to fly through Jackson, MS, you pay attention to the airport’s full name. Call it Jackson-Evers International Airport. Better still, call it Medgar Evers International Airport. It will link you up with a person and a time when America was truly struggling to finds its soul.

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