A Display of Grace Under Pressure
At Medgar Evers’ funeral
3 Women of Distinction: Dr. Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
‘The last of the ‘Big Three’ and a Freedom’s Sister“
She was born Myrlie Beasley in Vicksburg, Mississippi in March 1933, but became known to the world as Myrlie Evers after she married Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader whom she met at Alcorn A&M College in 1950 while they were both students. A year later, they were married and became the parents of three children. Though Evers became a civil rights leader and activist in her own right, she followed the path her husband had pioneered, and always gave him credit for the work he had done to advance the cause of human rights as the Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP. When her husband was gunned down in the driveway of their home in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, it changed her entire life; notwithstanding, she had to raise her children in the shadow of their father’s assassination, as a single mother and the widow of a martyred civil rights leader.
After they were married, Evers and her family relocated to Mount Bayou, Mississippi, in search of better business and/or career opportunities. They believed and understood in the possibilities of the future for their children on the decisions they were making then. Embarking on business careers with Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company, they traveled extensively observing the pressures that extreme poverty and injustice imposed on Black people particularly in the South. That observation fueled their determination to do their best to institute positive changes in society–for Blacks and for the poor. In furtherance of that endeavor, the Evers opened the first Mississippi State Office of the NAACP.
They worked for voting rights, fairness in economic opportunities, fair and decent housing, equal education and equal justice under the law. As a team, they handled the field office organizing voter registration drives and civil rights demonstrations. As the civil rights movement gained in power, the dangers increased for those involved in it; they lived constantly under the threat of violence; they had become high-profiled targets for Southern terrorists with pro-segregation agendas. (Years later, in an interview, Evers said that the simple act of registering to vote often brought disastrous consequences to those brave enough to do it: “Their names would be published in the newspaper with their addresses and phone numbers, and they would be harassed by phone calls, people driving by, throwing rocks, eggs, firebombs…. Or the banks would call in mortgages with no notice. People got fired from their jobs immediately, lassoed as they were walking home, dragged into a car [and then beaten]. All this, because they just wanted [to register] to vote.”)
It became a routine part of their daily lives, as they were forced to live in the shadows. Out of the sheer necessity to survive, Evers and her husband had to resort to elaborate disguises, switching cars and complex maneuvers just to live a “normal” live. Law enforcement then was often in cahoots with the “terrorists” and could not be depended on. In other words, they were “lambs” on their own literally amidst a pack of man-eating “wolves.” There was a time, as Evers related “we never knew if we would see each other again, when he left home.” The threats intensified; one night while she was home with the children, their home was firebombed.
The end came at night on June 12, 1963: while watching television, Evers heard her husband’s car pulled up in the driveway. Shortly after, she heard a gunshot and ran outside to find her husband on the ground bleeding…. shot in the back. According to historical records, some neighbors rushed him to the nearby university hospital, which did accept Blacks. So it was reported that at first, he was refused admission but when the hospital officials realized who he was, they accepted him. By then, it was too late; Medgar Evers had died. As expected, Myrlie Evers was devastated; it seemed that her world had been turned inside out and upside down, all in one stroke.
With grim determination, Evers decided to carry on with the rest of her life, prepared for the unforeseen realities that lay ahead. She displayed enormous courage under tremendous stress; the threats and intimidation continued, but Evers remained further suffering through two hung White juries in the trials of a white supremacist, accused of murdering her husband. She then re-located to California with her three children to build a new life. Evers started a new chapter in her life; raising her children and continuing her education consumed her time but she never gave up the fight to bring her husband’s killer(s) to justice nor to keep his memory alive. Evers pursued those objectives relentlessly and wrote her first of many books, For Us, the Living in 1967, a chronicle of the life of her late husband and the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. Later on, she would also anchor an HBO special, “Southern Justice, the Murder of Medgar Evers,” based on the same subject.
In 1968, Evers, received her B.A. degree in Sociology and a Certificate from Simmons College, School of Management, Boston, Massachusetts. She worked tirelessly to infuse her husband’s legacy into the civil rights lexicon and along the way, Evers received honorary doctorate degrees from Pomona College (Pomona, California): Medgar Evers College–named in honor of her husband–(Brooklyn, New York); Spelman College (Atlanta, Georgia); Columbia College (Chicago, Illinois); Bennett College (Greensboro, North Carolina); Tougaloo College (Tougaloo, Mississippi); Willamette University (Salem, Oregon); Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and others.
Twice Evers ran unsuccessfully for Congress from California’s 24th congressional district: in a June 1970 special election and in the general election later that November. But she did not give up; the following year, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus, which added to her other endeavors and carrying-on her husband’s legacy. Then she married Walter Williams, a civil rights activist, in 1975 and became Evers-Williams.
When Mayor Thomas Bradley appointed her as commissioner of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works in 1987, she was the first Black woman to be appointed to that post. Other positions she held included director of Planning and Development for the Claremont College; vice president, Seligman & Latz, a public company listed on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange; and national director of consumer affairs, Atlantic Richfield. During those years, Evers-Williams stayed focused on her former husband’s accused killer. From time to time, she returned to Mississippi to keep in touch with any developments and in 1989, her diligence paid off; she found several people who would be willing to testify about the event of that dreadful night in 1963. However, finding assistance within the justice system seemed an insurmountable task; she encountered roadblocks at every turn until a young assistant district attorney took up the legal battle on her behalf and prosecuted the accused killer for the third time. In 1994, 31 years after the crime, he was found guilty of the murder of Medgar Evers and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After the final trial, she reportedly explained her reason for bringing up the pain and anger again, “I walked side by side with Medgar in everything he did.”
The next year, Evers-Williams was sworn in as chair of the NAACP national board in a ceremony in the Metropolitan AME church in Washington, D.C. before a crowd of over 1,000 supporters. Two days later, her husband, Walter E. Williams died from prostate cancer. Then in 1996, a movie was made about the trial, Ghosts of Mississippi, which told the story focusing on the trial; it starred Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams–before, during and after the death of Medgar Evers and of course, the trial.
As chair of the NAACP national board, she brought new energy to the civil rights organization, restoring it back to its original mission of protecting the rights of the disenfranchised Americans and especially Black and poor Americans. “I will give my all to the NAACP to see that it becomes stronger, to see that we regain our rightful place as the premier civil rights organization in this country. Recalling the days gone by when she and Medgar struggled in the Mississippi office, she said, “I will give my all to the NAACP to see that it becomes stronger, to see that we regain our rightful place as the premier civil rights organization in this country.” Much-needed contributions, membership and volunteers increased during her tenure and though the work was challenging she believed that the NAACP had “regained its moral center of gravity.”
During the years Evers-Williams chaired the organization, she was credited with reducing its deficit, healing the wounds among members of the board and hiring a progressive president, former Congressman Kwesi Mfume, to guide the organization through to the 21st century. She stayed at the helm for three years, completed her goals for the NAACP and left to devote her efforts and energy to establishing the Medgar Evers Institute, whose goals paralleled that of the NAACP–furthering human rights, equality and justice for all under the law. In 1999, Evers-Williams wrote Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be which was followed by a bestseller, I Dream A World: Black Women Who Changed America. Evers-Williams said, that she “greets today and the future with open arms.” This credo has carried her through years of struggle and success.
Evers-Williams found solace in the company of two other Black women who had suffered the same fate as she had: the assassination of their husbands. Dr. Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King and Evers-Williams formed a kinship based on their common experiences until their deaths left Evers-Williams as the single member of the trio.
As one of the 20 original members of the Exhibition Honorees of the Freedom’s Sisters, recently, she was the guest speaker at the luncheon for the Freedom’s Sisters of Southern California. Now at 77, Evers-Williams still serves as an inspiration to all women, especially Black women.