Remembering Medgar Evers: His legacy at the school that bears his name

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For students and faculty at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., every day is an opportunity to carry on the legacy of their school’s namesake.  Devoted to the elimination of segregation in his native Mississippi, martyred civil rights leader Medgar Wiley Evers, in the 1950s and early 1960s, led peaceful protests, economic boycotts and political sit-ins against white-owned or controlled institutions that practiced racism.

By the time of his assassination on June 12, 1963, Evers had become the NAACP’s field secretary for the state, recruiting members and organizing voter-registration campaigns, as well as helping to investigate crimes perpetrated against Blacks. Most notable among these crimes was the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta for allegedly talking to a white woman.

It is in the spirit of Evers’ life work that students at the school in central Brooklyn that bears his name are encouraged to take their education seriously and are imbued with a sense of commitment to the well-being of their community. “A good example of how our students are affected by the community is in their recent participation in the peaceful protest after the killing of Sean Bell.  Not only did they participate but they motivated other students in other colleges to participate,” says Joan Parrott-Fonseca, the new dean of the college’s School of Business.

She was referring to the incident last November in which five New York police officers fired 50 shots into a car driven by Bell as he was leaving his own bachelor party. Bell, who was unarmed and was to be married hours later, died at the scene. Fifty-one years after the murder of Emmett Till and 43 years after that of Medgar Evers, Bell’s death is a stark reminder of the policies and practices that gave birth to the civil rights and Black Power movements of the twentieth century.

“The Mississippi Man”   
In addition to redressing such policies and practices, academic, business and economic empowerment of Blacks were among the core values of the civil rights movement. Evers’ own life embodied these values. Born in a devoutly religious home in segregated Mississippi, he, like many men of his generation, joined the military when Japan’s devastating attack in 1941 on U.S. battleships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, formally brought the United States into World War II. Racism followed him even as he served his country against its foreign enemies. His experiences as a Black soldier cemented his determination to be a civil rights activist.

Education First
Upon his return to Mississippi after military service, Evers threw himself into studies at Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, near Lorman, Miss., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952. Alcorn, which subsequently became Alcorn State University, was founded in 1871 as the nation’s first state-supported higher education institution for Blacks. Today it is a member school of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, which is named after the first African-American to serve as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even with his higher education, Evers never lost sight of the need to fight against injustice, to draw national and world attention to the policies and practices that wracked his state and the country as a whole. He joined the Jackson, Miss., branch of the NAACP shortly after his graduation to do just that. “Our only hope is to control the vote,” he said at the time.

The Next Level
Nearly 10 years after community leaders in predominantly Black central Brooklyn began to clamor for a local public college, Medgar Evers College was established as the youngest of the four-year senior colleges in the City University of New York. On September 28, 1970, the date the school observes as “Founders’ Day,” the Board of Higher Education approved the name in honor of the slain civil rights leader.

Simply bestowing his name upon the school was not enough to honor Evers. There was the task of taking his legacy of economic empowerment to the next level, via academic excellence. “The mission of the School of Business is to emphasize excellence in undergraduate business education, in the context of the liberal arts, and to prepare students for administrative and managerial careers in both the private and public sectors, as well as for graduate and/or professional studies, entrepreneurship and leadership roles in their careers and communities,” says Parrot-Fonseca, who was the first woman to serve as the director of the Minority Business Development Agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Appointed last August, she holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “I am excited to aid President [Edison] Jackson in elevating Medgar Evers to the next level through honing and nurturing the already established degree programs, centers and resources. At the same time, I am working diligently to bring new resources to the School of Business to place it at the forefront of undergraduate liberal arts management,” she says.

As part of the business program, students are given an opportunity to intern in some of the top corporations in the city, helping to build their confidence for careers in the business arena, Parrott-Fonseca says. “After they experience the business world and realize that they were successful over the bridge, they are assured that they too can contribute to the society they live in,” she says.

That’s a plus for Brooklyn, Parrott-Fonseca says. “Brooklyn is currently in resurgence and at the beginnings of a renaissance. With Brooklyn as our living laboratory, the distinguished faculty is able to bridge the chasm between theory and practice, in real time. My vision for the School of Business is to be an institution in which our students are endowed with the education, skills and resources that are necessary to lead this renaissance from both the public and private sectors, as well as at the grass-roots level,” she says.

A Global Agenda
The civil rights movement and its offspring, the Black Power movement, coincided with, and in many ways influenced, the struggles for freedom from colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean. The linkages forged within the Black Diaspora during that time are invaluable in today’s global economy, where business partnerships are formed across oceans.  

For the School of Business, the college’s emphasis on cultural and ethnic diversity—with its substantial number of students from Africa and the Caribbean—provides an appropriate environment for the study of business principles within a global context. Eighty-seven percent of the overall student body hails from overseas. “Our students are not the typical 19 to 20-year-olds. These are parents who are raising their own children while educating themselves. So I am very encouraged when I see them getting involved in the community,” says Parrott-Fonseca.  

Parrott-Fonseca brings to the college influential connections she made during her comprehensive career in local, state and federal government service and in the private and non-profit sectors. No doubt, however, her track record of leadership and her experience in the global arena were important factors in her choice as dean.

At the MBDA, she directed the overall management of the agency’s $66 million annual budget, administered its nationwide network of technical business assistance centers, forged partnerships with the corporate and non-profit sectors and expanded the agency’s services. She spearheaded the Minority Business Global Market Access Program, which resulted in an estimated $600 million in U.S. exports, led trade admissions overseas and established strategic partners in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

She draws from this experience in dealing with the diverse population at Medgar Evers and in preparing them for a globalized world. “I was 13 years old when Medgar Evers was killed and I understood just what he stood for. Because of him, I feel responsible to mentor young people and just be a role model,” Parrot-Fonseca says.