Mississippi native Minrose Gwin (Knoxville ’67, ‘83) tells the Tennessee Alumnus about the inspiration for her new book Remembering Medgar Evers, Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.
What inspired you to write about Medgar Evers?
Medgar Evers was the first NAACP field secretary in Mississippi, a job some people called a suicide mission. He worked with local people behind the scenes for social change. I remember the shock waves when he was shot, people saying, “What did he expect?” and “One Evers down, one to go,” referring to his brother, Charles, who also worked in the civil rights movement.
My generation of white Southerners has been a bridge generation, moving from the mindset of the past to a present in which racial justice is a continuing part of a ‘longer, harder civil rights movement.’ Ever since writing my dissertation at UT, I’ve felt strongly this responsibility. I thought it was important to write about Evers.
Your novel, The Queen of Palmyra, includes Evers’ death. Did you work on the books at the same time?
I was writing the Evers book when I felt I had to stop and tell the story in fiction. The novel is the story of a white girl in Mississippi. Her father is modeled on Byron De La Beckwith, Evers’ murderer. Much of my Evers research is embedded in the novel.
How did you choose the novel’s point of view to be through the literature and songs he inspired?
I didn’t write a biography because that’s not what I do. My field is literature. I had begun research on traumatic points in history that inspired art and literature. The deeper I got into the Evers story, the more work I uncovered—fiction, drama, poetry, Bob Dylan songs, Judy Collins music. His legacy stretched out through all this work, but he wasn’t well known as a civil rights leader.
What are you writing now?
I’ve started a novel about women and girls who encounter unwanted pregnancy in the pre-Roe v. Wade era. I want to explore how these pregnancies transformed lives.
Were you an English major at UT?
Yes, English with a journalism minor.
Who were your favorite professors?
Bain Stewart, my Shakespeare professor, was inspiring, as were many of my UT professors. I worked at The Daily Beacon, and I really admired (former journalism professor and Beacon adviser) Kelly Leiter. And I loved UT football!
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Gwin is Kenan Eminent Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.