Medgar Evers’ Widow: Jim Crow Wears A Brooks Brothers Suit

Over the years we’ve chronicled many pop culture references made to Brooks Brothers throughout the 20th century. Starting some 70 years ago, the brand began to serve as shorthand not only for affluence and tradition, but for their flipside, the stodginess and narrow-mindedness of the Eastern Establishment. Examples range from Mary McCarthy’s 1942 short story “The Man In The Brooks Brothers Shirt” to the lyrics from 1950’s “Guys And Dolls,” with its reference to “the breakfast-eating Brooks Brothers type.”

Although the WASP stranglehold on power has long toppled, the grey-suited conformity of the Eisenhower years is just a page from history, and Brooks Brothers has become a billion-dollar global fashion brand, the company still serves as a symbol of door-shut inquality, especially to those from a certain American experience.

The latest to invoke the unique set of connotations that hangs over the Brooks Brothers brand as is Myrlie Evers-Williams, legendary civil rights activist and widow of Medger Evers, who was assassinated 50 years ago Wednesday.

In an interview with Al Sharpton on PoliticsNation on the anniversary of the assassination, Evers-Williams said, “Jim Crow is alive, and it’s dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, my friend, instead of a white robe.” The reference comes at 4:30 in the video above, and the quote served MSNBC as headline material for its recap of the interview. The remark was also tweeted many times on Twitter, though it’s impossible to say how those who retweeted it interpreted the comment. Needless to say, as race in America always is, it’s a complex issue.

Evers-Williams’ remark, linking a clothing brand to institutionalized racism, may be hard for younger people to understand. It feels unfair Brooks Brothers, which, like America, has changed with the times. During the ’70s and ’80s, its catalogs featured illustrations of idealized gentlemen, all white. Today, the company regularly features black models in clothing and settings once considered exclusive to white America:

brooks-brothers-fall-winter-2010-catalog-campus-4

bbmodel

And just a few weeks ago Brooks Brothers ran a BrooksCool marketing campaign featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra:

brookscool

President Obama, like so many presidents before him, wore Brooks Brothers to his inauguration:

president-barack-obama-inauguration-2009

One of those other presidents was Lincoln, and during the Civil War Brooks Brothers made uniforms for the Union.

The Civil War brings us to America’s original sin, racism, and what happened to Medgar Evers and his widow 50 years ago is cruel and tragic. But in matters of race, many of us have moved forward.

However, Jason Marshall, an African-American friend of mine and previous Ivy-Style.com contributor, tells me that moving forward is the challenge for the oppressor more than the oppressed, and this helps us understand the point of view behind Evers-Williams’ remark. It’s important to understand, he says, that no one could be closer to the source of intitutionalized racism than Myrlie Evers-Williams. “If it were a contemporary black celebrity under 50,” he says, “I can understand how it could be considered an unfair remark. But you can’t get any closer to the source of discrimination than Myrlie Evers-Williams. Not only is she black, she’s a woman. And for her generation, ‘the man in the Brooks Brothers suit’ was a genuine symbol of establishment oppression. In her experience, the brand was linked to institutionalized racism. Also, to analayze the comments of a widow on the anniversary of her husband’s death is already tricky.”

I asked Jason to share his thoughts on the remark in writing, and here’s his take:

Brooks Brothers is first and foremost an ideal, like any other successful fashion brand. This is especially true for those outside of the the menswear trade. Those of us within menswear would likely contest that J. Press is the stodgiest of brands.

We would also be missing the point.

When someone uses the term “Brooks Brothers” as an adjective (as in “the man in the Brooks Brothers suit”), it has nothing to do with the billion-dollar megabrand run by an Italian and strangely partial to overly large armholes. It has to do with the behavior of a demographic which companies like Brooks Brothers have been eager to dress and identify with. Said demographic at one time in America consisted of many devout racists who sole purpose in life seemed to be the obliteration of the African-American race.

Myrlie Evers-Williams was born into a time when this demographic was at something of froth over how to rid themselves of a people whom they saw as social lepers. Her late husband, Medgar Evers, sought to overturn the status quo, and in doing found himself at the center of hatred for him and his kind. Myrlie Evers was made a widow by said demographic.

A lesson to be learned by from all widows is that grief takes on many guises, and tend to last as long as the widow. A lesson learned from any one who has experienced racism on an institutional level is that those wounds run deep and scar badly. To suggest that a woman who epitomizes both circumstances should “move past it” is to fail to be sympathetic. Brooks Brothers can dress anyone in America today, but the behavior of those whom it dressed most frequently in the past will never be forgotten.

Throughout the 20th century, the Brooks Brothers brand was a double-edged sword of prestige and stigma, and the heyday of the Ivy League Look coincides with the civil rights movement. In other words, the style for which Brooks Brothers was the chief developer was at its zenith at precisely a time when black Americans were dying in the fight for social change. Moreover, in her interview, Evers-Williams points out that many young blacks today are unaware of what their elders went through during the civil rights movement.

The shadow and the light that shines on the Brooks Brothers brand — unique in American retail — mirrors the duality of America’s oppressive past and the desire of many of us to overcome it. — CC

Obama inauguration photo via New York Daily News.

44 Comments on "Medgar Evers’ Widow: Jim Crow Wears A Brooks Brothers Suit"

  1. Brooks brothers gets a mention in this interview also

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XglI2xMdf7Y

  2. Great essay. Ivy blogs can be far too eager to romanticize the period they’re devoted to, but it’s important to remember the warts as well.

  3. Jeff Jarmuth | June 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |

    I think Ms. Evers-Williams comment is not out of bounds, even though I’ve sported BB suits since the 1980s. Clothing connotes, and BB and iconic brands are especially good at connoting images, ideals, etc. When I see a kid in a hoodie and those baggy jeans pulled low on their hips it connotes to me that I’d better cross the street. So too for Ms. Evers-Williams when she sees people like me. . .

  4. Christian | June 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm |

    Many thanks to Jason Marshall for his perspective on this. We spent a couple of hours on the phone today and it was a conversation I wish everybody could have.

  5. Arthur Orton | June 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |

    Boy, do I have a different interpretation of what she meant, and, to turn it around, I think Jason Marshall, whatever his bona fides as an African-American, is missing the point, especially his comment that “the behavior of those whom it [BB] dressed most frequently in the past will never be forgotten.”

    I do not understand her to be saying that in the past people who wore Brooks Bros. suits were racist. All she’s saying is that in the past the racism was obvious and the racists were obvious– the KKK sympathizers, rednecks, whatever. Now racism has been more subtle, and even the best clothes can harbor secret or unconscious racists.

    BTW, the Rev. Al is looking sharp.

    I could be entirely wrong. After all, what do I know? I’m only an old white man who lived through the era.

  6. Interesting comment, Arthur. I agree with you; I think Ms. Evers-Williams is commenting on overt vs. hidden racism, not particularly the ‘establishment’.

  7. Christian | June 13, 2013 at 3:09 pm |

    And to think, when I woke up this morning I thought I was going to do a post on George Bush’s socks:

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/onpolitics/2013/06/12/george-bush-89th-birthday-socks-twitter/2415977/

    We’ll do that tomorrow and lighten things up.

  8. vanderleun | June 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |

    It is axiomatic that anybody appearing on that clown Sharpton’s show is mentally ill. Sad but true.

  9. Etymologue | June 13, 2013 at 4:09 pm |

    Mrs. Evers-Williams and Mr. Marshall would do well to think about the difference between prejudice, racism, segregation, and discrimination. They would also do well to think about the contribution of kids in hoodies and baggy jeans pulled low on their hips to growing prejudice among Whites who played an active part in the civil rights movement in the 60s.

  10. Another way to lighten things up would be to do a post on the film “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter”, which is a rich source of pop-culture references to Brooks Brothers. At one point one of the characters says something along the lines of “Talent isn’t required for success. If it was, Brooks Brothers would have gone out of business long ago.” I don’t remember the exact quote but it was something to that effect.

  11. I also agree with Arthur’s comment. I believe Ms. Evers-Williams was referring to the difference in racism between the mid-20th century and now. Racism today is perhaps less overt but still harmful when it is perpetrated by those with power and influence – “The Suits” who make our laws and determine business policy. Brooks Brothers was a convenient name for her to use but I don’t believe it matters what brand of suit the racist is wearing.

  12. Anyone who uses “Brooks Brothers” as an adjective as Mrs. Ever-Williams does is revealing an old-fashioned mind-set. I excuse the lady because she is 80 years old. As for Mr. Marshall, his site pix suggest he is in his thirties, and that age is rather too young to indulge in such an anachronism except for comic effect. I have learned that both oppressors and oppressed need to overcome their own prejudice- otherwise, they too easily change places. I would have thought the example of Nelson Mandela would be therapeutic, but the US is unique in its desire to tear away the scar of its racism at any equal opportunity.

    One could look at the interesting clothes of Ikire Jones, a line run by Nigerian-born Wale Oyejide in Brooklyn and Philadelphia. I lilfted the following from the site The Italian Cut, which came from an interview he gave on Keikari.com:

    “I think there is a common notion that style is inherent and cannot be taught. This is probably true to a degree. However, style is just a matter of self discovery. Everyone has an ideal self: A perfect vision of who they want to be, or who they want to look like, when they close their eyes. This isn’t necessarily just about what clothes you wear, but about the kind of man you want to be. Every day, we strive toward this ideal. Some days, we fall back, some days, we grow better. Style is no different. Every man should feel free to experiment and try things, until he finally reaches that comfortable spot. Clothes are just clothes. They won’t change who you are, but they will teach you about yourself. It’s a bit of a paradox, but the clothes you wear outside can teach you about the person you are on the inside.”

    These words tell me something wonderful about Mr. Oyejide whether he wears Brooks Brothers or dashiki or his own creations (about which he writes most amusingly).

  13. WFBjunior | June 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm |

    To portray “slavery” in a context of being uniquely American, as is common in our society is one of the under-educateds greatest blights. The African slave trade was a global market developed over hundreds of years and driven by an interdependent marketplace of indigenous tribes capturing their own, Euro-American transporters, and Euro-American as well as African purchasers. There was no one party solely responsible and, to the contrary, there were so many people groups culpable that to impute responsibility on WASPs wearing sack-suits and OCBDs is capricious.

    As to the “warts” which our history undoubtedly bears, how exacerbated are they to be made in today’s rhetoric? Is it wise to engage in ascribing a Reconstruction Era vigilante group of the that essentially died off in the 1930’s to MadMen and Southern fraternal societies bedecked in tasteful, traditional attire? The Klan at its height of popularity in the ’20’s represented only 2% of the American population. Hardly an accurate sample size to draw such a broad and indiscriminate correlation. Clearly a case of histrionics, however seemingly justified, by Mrs. Ever-Williams.

    Today there are more opportunities for all races and creeds than at any time in American society. The poor and disenfranchised are wealthier than at anytime in our history. They have access to free education, subsidized healthcare, subsidized food and sunsidized shelter. Those who choose to victimize themselves by decrying the quasi-shackles they feel are placed on them by “racists” hiding in tweeds and blazers are wasting their opportunity. Not only that they are adding timber to a fire that has been dying steadily for 250 years, building a flame of self-importance for others to see and rally around in anger, indignation and reverse prejudice.

    Our forefathers were discriminated against by a tyrannical ruler oversees, yet choosing not to sit back and relinquish themselves to the victims role, they rose to action and paved the way for others, by crafting a constitutional framework that endowed our current society with the right to choose that all men should be free. With this in mind we should embrace one another and leave our past where it belongs.

    P.S. 30% off at BB! online only for any of you closeted racists needing a new sport coat to hide in.

  14. @Etymalogue

    And perhaps you could ruminate on the differences between the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

  15. Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.

    When I read this article earlier today, Christian was one step away from castigating Mrs. Evers-Williams for her anti-white racism. Now we have Marxist claptrap instead? (Any analysis that approaches its subject as a struggle between “oppressors” and “the oppressed” is, by definition, Marxist.)

    Also, “institutional(ized) racism” is shorthand for “blacks have poorer social outcomes than whites.” This is not something that anyone can change. The problem lies in the nearly instant transformation of the civil rights movement from the quest for “equality of opportunity,” which is good and nearly what we have,* into the quest for “equality of outcome,” which is impossible: just as no two individuals have identical abilities, desires, etc., so, too, do no two groups have identical abilities, desires, etc.

    *Affirmative Action and the like skew the field against non-preferred groups.

  16. An addendum to WFBjunior’s excellent comment:

    As it so happens, the slave trade in Africa was developed not only by Africans enslaving each other but also by Arab Moslems. Euro-American slaving lasted three centuries; they learned it from the Moslems, who were at it for fourteen centuries (and by some accounts, are still engaged in slavery).

    95% of the trans-Atlantic slaves went to Central and South America; only 5% came to the USA.

    Most American slaves (2/3 of whom were men) went on to agricultural work; most Arabian slaves (2/3 of whom were women) went on to sexual service or military service.

    American slaves went on to have children. Men Arabian slaves were usually castrated (often at processing centers in Africa), and the children born to the women slaves in Arabia were normally killed at birth.

    About 10% of the slaves in the trans-Atlantic trade died en route, but the mortality rate of those headed to East Africa and Arabia was an astounding 80 to 90%.

    Christians were at the heart of the abolitionist movement. William Wilberforce (an evangelical Christian) led the anti-slavery movement in Britain for 26 years, until finally the slave trade was banned in 1807 (slavery itself was ended in the Empire in 1833). The British Navy, at great cost, policed the seas for slavers. The rest of Europe (1815) and America (1865) banned slavery later. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and Yemen did not outlaw slavery until 1962, and Mauritania did not until 1980(!). There has been no Islamic abolitionist movement.

    Interestingly—and tellingly—the Arabic word for “black person” is the same as their word for “slave.”

    Just some more perspective. It should go without saying that none of this is meant as any sort of defense or support of American slavery—which was really the fault of the British, as they were the ones who brought slaves here, and we had to deal with the issue when we declared independence.

  17. Orgastic future | June 14, 2013 at 2:37 am |

    Her using “Brooks Brothers” for a suit is like someone saying “Nike” for shoes. It’s the most convenient and known brand. And the phrasing she used is more than 50/60 years old. “They where suits instead of robes” was a popular phrase during the civil rights era to warn people that the courtroom and boardrooms were just as racist as a klan rally. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Even to this day that phrase is in heavy rotation. So once again, Brooks brothers is just the most well known brand when naming a suit. And the iconic brand gets substituited a lot when speaking of suits in general.

  18. Orgastic future | June 14, 2013 at 2:42 am |

    Oh, and some of you are hinting at what you really want to say….i’m just saying. Smh.

  19. Pat Rician | June 14, 2013 at 4:12 am |

    In order to avoid charges of racism, am I now supposed to drop off my navy blazers, tweeds, khakis, etc. at the local thrift shop and start wearing hoodies and baggy jeans?

  20. @Henry:
    Any analysis that includes the word ‘Moslem’ is, by definition, moronic.

  21. Just as a less snarky aside, the ossified reactionaries in this thread demonstrate precisely why we can’t ‘move past’ this issue in American culture; too many of us are stuck in the ‘denial’ stage, apparently.

    “One of the problems with the idea that America needs a ‘Conversation On Race’ is that it presumes that ‘America’ has something intelligent to say about race. All you need do is look at how American history is taught in this country to realize that that is basically impossible.”

    -Ta-Nehisi Coates

  22. Now we are bringing clothing into the subject of racism.
    What’s next judging someone by their favorite ice cream flavor?
    This is another reason why I’m visiting this site lesss and less lately!!!

  23. @Etymologue: Your suggesting Afro-Americans “think about the difference between prejudice, racism, segregation, and discrimination” is akin to asking to an opponent of Mike Tyson to think about the difference between leather, foam, skin and bone while at the receiving end of a well placed uppercut.

    @Bebe: You decide that I’m too young to contextualize Mrs. Evers Remarks then go on to suggest that my even experiencing institutional racism be seen as comedy. You are shinning light on the luxury of a certain perspective. To cite a Nigerian in my age bracket (while I do respect his hustle) is to further illuminate the luxury of your perspective.

    Many of these comments seems indicative of a perspective from which one who has never experienced racism has the luxury to decide when those who have and still do can stop feeling its effects.

  24. @Jim

    A cruel rule of blogging: You’re only as good as your last post.

  25. I’m pretty sure that “jf” is the same leftist radical who has been posting under various names here for quite some time. Why doesn’t he pick a handle and keep it? Does he keep getting banned?

    I see no need to change the traditional English spelling of words because of recent fashions. I don’t care how a word is pronounced in a foreign language; we’re never going to pronounce it “correctly” (that is, according to the standards of the foreign language) anyway. So we spell it our way, say it ourway—and why not? They do the same to us!

  26. Come on Christian, your site is much better than this. I’ve always contributed positively, but I’m so-so tired of hearing that everything today has racial undertones.

  27. I would associate Brooks Brothers [and J. Press] as the clothing of civil rights workers who came mostly from the North to break the back of Jim Crow and White Citizens Councils in the South in the 50s and early 60s. Where the civil rights movement went off the rails and off into “Race, Class & Gender in [fill in the blank]” was the latter half of the 60s onwards. They should’ve stopped after the end of official racism, prejudice and exclusion and focused on equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

  28. @ Geoffrey:
    Please tell me when racism, prejudice and exclusion ended officially.

  29. Ryan Biggs | June 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm |

    I agree with Arthur, Tim and others – she is using “Brooks Brothers suit” to refer to the corporate world. I don’t necessarily think her characterization is spot on, but she’s right to identify the corporate class and the new wave of ultra-rich CEOs and investment bankers. The people who control our media and own our politicians.

  30. There’s a certain asymmetry that’s ignored. For example, saying “Rednecks wear Redwing boots” is not the same as “Redwing boot wearers are rednecks”. Saying that racists today wear BB suits ≠ BB suit wearers are racists. So let’s not rush to offense because we wear BB clothes.

    On a bigger note, she’s using BB to make a point: namely that there’s an undercurrent of “polite” racism in American society. There are still racist views, but increasingly racism manifests in subtle, even superficially harmless ways. In other words, racism no longer burns crosses on the front lawn; but wealth and privilege still have a way of begetting concentrated and segregated power. BB is a widely-recognized symbol of wealth, that’s all.

    And for the record: equality of opportunity still evades us. Visit an inner-city school and a wealthy suburban school. Visit urban food deserts and then a Whole Foods. Visit mountain enclaves in the Appalachians of West Virginia and Kentucky and then explore Greenwich. Young people from these areas still face drastically different odds of getting proper nutrition, educations and health care.

  31. “After the reelection of President Obama, there was rioting at the University of Mississippi.” My brother is a student at Ole Miss, and was at the so-called “riots” that night. A few drunk rednecks, less than 10, he estimated, were chanting anti-Obama racial slurs and one burned a picture of him. The rest of the students were merely bystanders. At the same time, someone pulled the fire alarm in the freshman dorms, and hundreds of students from Martin and Stockard evacuated the buildings to the parking lots where the “riot” was occurring. My brother said he was there the whole time, and didn’t hear about the incident until my dad called him, asking if he was okay and more about the riots. His roommate had heard about it on Twitter and came outside to find…nothing. It’s laughable how absurdly sensationalized the story was by the media. Outlets like Black Entertainment Television, CBS, and Huffington Post were the first to jump on this story and reported rock throwing and racial violence. The Daily Beast reported 400 rioters.

    It’s also worth noting that campus police protected 10 Klansmen who held an 8-minute rally at the University while hundreds of students gathered to protest. The Deep South is the cradle of bigotry in America because mainstream media wants it to be.

  32. Forgot to add: The HuffPo went back and corrected the report on the incident; and the “rally” was in 2009.

  33. TK,

    Not for nothing, but even Chancellor Dan Jones of Ole Miss in an official statement used the 400 figure. That’s not media sensationalism; sounds like it’s a police report. Not to mention that, if anyone had the incentive to obfuscate or mislead, surely the administrator of the institution in question would.

    From the statement: “University police were notified by students shortly before midnight Tuesday that Twitter chatter was indicating students were gathering near the student union to protest the results of the election. The officers found 30-40 students gathered in front of the union, and over the next 20 minutes the gathering had grown to more than 400 students, many of whom were chanting political slogans. The crowd was ordered to disperse by university police, and after about 25 minutes students had returned to residence halls. About 100 students gathered again at one hall, and university police dispersed the group and made two arrests for disorderly conduct, including one for public intoxication and one for failure to comply with police orders.”

    http://news.olemiss.edu/message-chancellor-dan-jones/#.Ubu15BbXE6E

    Brice

  34. Prejudice is an attitude, not a form of behavior. It cannot and will never be outlawed, or end.
    Discrimination is a form of behavior, including sexism, racism, etc.
    Racism is a particular form of discrimination based on racial prejudice. (The term is incorrectly used by some to refer to racial prejudice that does not not necessarily result in action).
    Segregation is an extreme form of discrimination. It is illegal.

  35. Just wanted to say I have enjoyed the articles Jason has done for Ivy Style. Look forward to one day hearing him play.

  36. Orgastic future | June 15, 2013 at 4:03 am |

    Tk is completely and utterly delusional! Hahaha! Wow! You need to get out from under that rock where you developed your ode to the “accepting racial south.”

  37. I only look like a “leftist radical” if you’re looking at me through eye holes in a hood. I haven’t been banned that I know of; I have a handle, and I don’t need another.

  38. My apologies to “jf” if he isn’t the leftist radical I mentioned earlier. It’s just that his tone and the content of his comment was so similar to said misguided soul.

    jf, if you’d care to deal with facts, then we can talk. If you’re just going to call me a poopy head, then we can’t. Your choice.

  39. Christian | June 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm |

    I’m on YouTube looking for versions of Gerry Mulligan’s “Rocker,” a tune I can’t get out of my head lately for some reason, and Jason at the Montreal Jazz Festival pops up in the side menu:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WxfBFIurxg

    Hadn’t seen it, unbelievable coincidence, and bravo!

  40. Al Sharpton is despicable.

    He pushed Tawana Brawley’s story that several white men, including prosecutor Steven Pagones and some police officers, had kidnapped her, held her captive for several days, raped her repeatedly, then wrote racist phrases on her body, smeared her with feces, and left her in a garbage bag.

    A grand jury found that the whole thing was a complete fabrication.

    Nonetheless, Al Sharpton has never apologized for ruining the lives of the men accused, has never apologized for all the harm he has caused. Do you recall that he called the owners of a department store in Harlem “white interlopers,” and that as a result, the store was burned to the ground?

    Sharpton is reprehensible. He has made a career out of stirring up hatred for whites and Jews. He should have been spurned by society, yet instead he gets accolades. He is a virulent racist, and no decent person should have anything to do with him.

  41. We would sit there in our OCBDS, chinos, weejuns, and listen to this with great pleasure:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P1x7Yy9CXI

  42. @ jason Marshall….August 17th, 1965 at 3:17AM GMT.

  43. In the vid, Sharpton looks sloppy, trendy, and amateur…an old man trying to dress like a 20-something Euro-model as if refusing to learn how to tie a neck-tie is some sort of civil disobedience? Contrast with MLK who always looked magnificent.

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