Long ago, in his troubled Mississippi boyhood, Charles Evers and his younger brother Medgar used to turn up at political rallies. "There was a senator in those days, Theodore Bilbo, who was the nastiest racist you ever heard," Charles recalls. "I remember once he pointed dramatically at us and told the crowd, 'If you don't send me back to Washington, one of these days these two nigger boys are gonna ask you to send them!' "

Probably not even Bilbo would have believed it, but that is precisely what Evers is doing. At 56, the burly three-term mayor of Fayette (population: 2,000) is running as an independent against three rivals for the U.S. Senate. It is the seat that will soon be vacated by Mississippi's most durable archconservative symbol, James O. Eastland.

Viewed in a historical context, the Evers candidacy seems almost whimsical. Black U.S. senators are rare enough, and none has been elected from a Deep South state since Reconstruction. Evers' record as a civil rights crusader has earned him a reputation far beyond his home state, but his political allegiances have been somewhat erratic. He was a friend and confidant of John and Robert Kennedy, and he and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were "like brothers," he says. Yet Evers later shocked his constituents by boosting George Wallace as a vice-presidential candidate. Further muddying the waters, he published a devastatingly candid autobiography just before an unsuccessful run for the governorship in 1971. In it Evers admitted having been a bootlegger, a pimp and a bookie. Once married and divorced, he says he has fathered seven children "that they've told me about." Among them are three 26-year-old daughters by three different women.

Though the odds against his election in November once appeared overwhelming, many Mississippians don't count Evers out. Natchez multimillionaire D.A. Biglane, one of the retiring senator's principal money men and an Evers supporter, believes Evers has a fighting chance if the other candidates split the white vote as expected. "We can win," says Biglane, "if we get just 10 percent of it."

As a boy, Evers admits he planned to work out his bitterness by gunning down whites from ambush. Today, with Amazing Grace playing softly in the background, he challenges the TV networks, the documentarians of racial strife in the '50s and '60s, to look Mississippi over again in the '70s. "It is time," he declares, "that somebody told about a Mississippi where people are beginning to learn that living in harmony is a whole lot better than strife."

His warmth for the Magnolia State seems genuine—if late-blooming. It does not stem, obviously, from memories of his wrenchingly impoverished boyhood in Decatur, Miss. During World War II Charles went off to join the Army at 17 and rose to the rank of sergeant-major. A cold-blooded hustler off-duty, he profited from a raft of illegal activities, including a brothel he owned in the Philippines.

After the Gl Bill put him through Mississippi's Alcorn A&M, where he played center on the football team, he headed for Chicago. There he made enough out of prostitution, bootlegging and the numbers racket to begin to dabble in real estate back in Mississippi and in South America. His brother Medgar meanwhile had become an NAACP field secretary in Mississippi. Then in 1963 Medgar was assassinated, and Charles Evers came home again. Though he headed South burning for vengeance, he decided eventually to take up Medgar's cause. His work in voter registration and in boycotts against merchants who victimized blacks brought him national attention. Politics beckoned soon afterward.

Since 1969 Evers' improbable home base has been the once dirt-poor hamlet of Fayette, which had never had a black mayor before him—though fewer than a third of its voters are white. His connections have helped him attract federal aid and private industry. Critics say no citizen has prospered more than the businessman-mayor, who now owns a shopping center, a lounge and cafe, a lumber supply company and a fried chicken restaurant. He lives alone in a plush bachelor pad complete with a huge mirrored red-and-black bedroom. Though he was brought to trial for income tax evasion three years ago, Evers proclaimed his innocence and the government dropped the case following a mistrial.

Evers' own brand of justice—he doubles as the local magistrate—can be swift and expensive. Public swearing costs $50; packing a gun, $300. Transgressors are dealt with impartially, even if the gun-toter turns out to be the mayor's own cousin from Chicago. "I gave her a $300 fine and it shocked her so bad she yelped, 'Oh, Charles,' " says Evers. "I shut her up real quick when I said, 'And that'll be another $100 for calling me "Charles" in my courtroom.' " (A notable exception to the no-gun rule is Evers himself; having survived an assassination attempt a few years ago, he carries a .38 pistol wherever he goes.)

His stands on the issues are equally tough. He opposes busing ("It doesn't work") and favors school prayers. He thinks the present welfare system should be scrapped, that voting should be mandatory and that all ablebodied men should be required to work. If some observers place him just a tad to the right of George Wallace, Evers sees no need to apologize. "Too many politicians are liars," he says. "I say exactly what I think. I want people to know me from what I was and for what I am. I have no skeletons in my closet."