Myrlie Evers: More than “the widow of…”
Sunday, March 17, 2019 ~ Honoring Myrlie Evers on her 86th Birthday
I first became aware of her one evening in June of 1963. Watching the televised news coverage of her husband’s murder with my parents and siblings in our home in Detroit. I had just graduated from high school and was preparing for college when that summer became a season of innocence lost, as images of the landscape of racial violence became part of our daily lives. My family is originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and at the time, many of our relatives were active members on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, so we were routinely riveted to any television and newspaper coverage reporting on their activities.
Just hours before, on the previous night, President Kennedy had addressed the nation in a nationally televised and profoundly compelling speech on the subject of civil rights and race. Recent shocking events in the south had come to a boiling point. And although Kennedy had taken a cautious stance on civil rights early on in his administration, he was moved and sickened by disturbing images he was seeing on television and in newspapers. White southern segregationists were openly engaging in brutal racial terrorism. Peaceful Negro marchers and demonstrators, including children, were being attacked by vicious snapping police dogs and blasted by fire hoses. So he knew it was time to take immediate action. Just the day before, on June 11, in a historic confrontation, he had to force Alabama Governor George Wallace to comply with federal desegregation laws. Wallace’s insistence on standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block the admittance of two Negro students, Vivian Malone, and James Hood was national news. The president issued an executive proclamation and called in the Alabama National Guard, ordering them to escort the students to be registered and admitted to the University.
Calling on his head speechwriter and adviser, Ted Sorensen, the two men sat together and, discussing the urgency of the situation, wrote the speech that was one of the defining moments of the Kennedy presidency. Labeling the matter “a moral issue”, the president sounded a clarion call for the end of segregation and revealed his immediate plans to submit strong civil rights legislation to the Congress on behalf of America’s Negro citizens.
As we later learned, that evening in their home in Jackson, Mississippi, Mrs. Myrlie Evers and her three small children, Darrell, Reena and James, had watched President Kennedy’s speech while waiting up for Medgar Evers’ arrival home from his duties as NAACP field officer. Also awaiting Evers’ arrival and crouching in the Honeysuckle bushes in a field across from their home was an armed sniper. White supremacist KKK Klansman, Byron De La Beckwith. And within seconds, one cowardly racist act, accompanied by the piercing sound of rifle fire shattered and changed the Evers’ life forever.
As details of the shooting were revealed in the national media, Myrlie Evers was frequently nameless, and only being referred to in the context of “his wife and their three small children”. Over the next few days, however, under the glare of the national media spotlight and the focus of worldwide attention, she emerged as a woman of extraordinary strength and substance, and courage and dignity. The heartbreaking image of her youthful, tear-streaked face at her husband’s funeral was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine, and the sight of her lovingly comforting her children moved this nation.
President Kennedy reacted strongly to the news of Evers’ murder. According to his staff members, he had been aware of Evers’ work in Mississippi. This horrific act was a catalyst to Kennedy’s increased awareness and direct involvement in the Civil Rights struggle. On June 19, prior to departing for his trip to Ireland and Berlin, President Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights Bill to Congress.
Medgar Evers’ burial at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors was attended by more than 3000 people, and his loving wife and children represented him well with grace and dignity. In the president’s personal letter of condolence to Mrs. Evers and her children, and dated June 12, 1963, President Kennedy wrote:
“Dear Mrs. Evers:
I extend to you and your children my sincerest condolences on the tragic death of your husband. Although comforting thoughts are difficult at a time like this, surely there can be some solace in the realization of the justice of the cause for which your husband gave his life. Achievement of the goals he did so much to promote will enable his children and the generations to follow to share fully and equally in the benefits and advantages our Nation has to offer.
Mrs. Kennedy joins me in extending her deepest sympathy.
Two weeks later, Mrs. Evers and her children received the president’s invitation to the White House, which she accepted and attended with her husband’s brother, Charles Evers.
In the coming weeks and months after her husband’s death, Mrs. Evers received frequent speaking invitations. Civil rights leaders, activists, and organizers wanted to hear from her. And with plans in progress for the March on Washington two months later, rumors of potential postponement of the event were rampant. The leaders and activists were in somewhat of a quandary over what public action needed to be taken in response to Medgar Evers’ assassination. But even in her own inconsolable grief, when she learned of the rumors, Mrs. Evers spoke out strongly and allowed her voice to be heard: “Don’t let this stop you…” was her response, and plans for the upcoming march went forward.
The Walk to Freedom
On that memorable Sunday, my family and I marched with over 200,000 spirited Detroiters in what was actually the dress rehearsal for the upcoming March on Washington, and where Dr. King’s now-famous I Have A Dream speech was heard for the first time. From conversations with my cousin, Bernard Lee, who was Dr. King’s long-time personal assistant and road manager, I understand that the speech had been rehearsed for months and it was decided that the Detroit march would be the perfect place to road test certain segments of the speech that were in question. That Sunday morning, as we gathered at the starting point with thousands of eager citizens of all races, creeds, and colors, the joyous and festive demonstration, The Walk to Freedom (aka The Great March on Detroit) was trumpeted for miles all the way down Woodward Avenue to the Detroit riverfront with songs and battle hymns and rallying cries to everyone that we were “marching to freedom!” The spirit of Medgar Evers was a powerful presence during the march, and he was memorialized in speech after speech.
Although the life that she and Medgar had envisioned and built together was instantly and unimaginably shattered on that awful night, Myrlie Evers slowly began making a valiant attempt to adjust to creating a life for herself and her children without him. She had been his partner in life and in work, facing harassment and death threats. When her husband’s assassination and public funeral propelled her onto the national stage, she assumed the role with courage and dignity, becoming a sought-after speaker and civil rights activist in her own right and on her own terms. Courageously picking up the civil rights activist baton from her fallen husband and carrying on with unquestionable dignity.
After leaving Mississippi and moving her family to Claremont California, she resumed her college education and received a Bachelor’s degree from Pomona College. In 1976, she married Walter Williams, and they resided in Oregon. Williams died in 1989. Among her numerous other achievements, in the 1990s she held a post as chairperson of the NAACP, and on January 21, 2013, she delivered the invocation at the second inauguration of Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol, becoming the first woman and the first layperson to do so.
One could easily venture a guess, however, that among Mrs. Evers’ proudest accomplishments is the phenomenal determination she maintained that resulted in her persuading prosecutors to re-open the case that brought her husband’s killer to justice. She would not rest and she kept digging for clues and evidence; and after hearing rumors of jury tampering and new evidence, her mission was clear. Finally, having had the presence of mind years ago to keep possession of courtroom transcripts of the previous trials, she was instrumental in bringing forth new evidence to the new trial in 1994. Subsequently, 30 years later, after a third jury of eight blacks and four whites arrived at a guilty verdict, the killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Seven years after spending his last years behind bars, he died in 2001 at age 80.
At the announcement of the verdict, Mrs. Evers, shouted, as she gazed Heavenward: “Yes! Medgar! I’ve gone the last mile of the way!”
Throughout the 55 years since the tragedy, this formidable woman has consistently exhibited the strength and fortitude that Medgar always told her she had. And she must feel his pride in her phenomenal achievements. While raising her children, she also managed to continue her own education and receive academic and social honors. The two books she has written: For Us The Living and Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be reflect her evolution from young wife and mother to seasoned veteran of the movement and a highly educated woman with considerable life experience. Neither her physical beauty or classic elegance have faded in the slightest, and she continues to be classically and stylishly dressed while maintaining her regal bearing at the age of 86. She is also still a much sought-after and dynamic public speaker and she continues to preserve Medgar Evers’ memory and ensure that his legacy endures for future generations and for all time. To that end, she currently devotes much of her time to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson Mississippi, the non-profit organization whose mission statement reads: “ The mission of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is to cultivate positive social change, intergenerational civic engagement, social and economic justice and research on equity, and justice worldwide.”
H.R.4895 — The Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument Act — 115th Congress
After reintroducing the Act in January of this year, and sixteen years after he began pushing for legislation to bring federal recognition to the home of the Civil Rights icon, Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson announced on social media that the bill was finally signed into law:
“In my capacity as Congressman of the Second Congressional District of Mississippi, to author this legislation to honor the sacrifice of Civil Rights Icon Medgar Evers and his widow, Myrlie, by designating their home as a National Monument. This legislation is of great personal importance to me. I, like many others, was inspired by the magnitude of determination Mr. Evers showed by dedicating himself to others and fighting against adversity. The designation of his home is an everlasting tribute to his legacy.”
Mississippi’s governor and other disingenuous representatives of the state, in their attempt to usurp all of the credit for this event, are seemingly in need of a history lesson. Mississippi holds the record for having the most lynchings and murders of black people in the entire country. And Medgar Evers did not “give his life”, it was taken. Taken during the struggle in which he fought so hard to gain many of the hard-won civil rights we enjoy today. And no amount of sycophantic praise for their white supremacist leader and current occupant of the Oval Office can take away the rightfully deserved credit from Representative Bennie G. Thompson and others who worked tirelessly and devoted their time to this effort. Nor will we be fooled into believing that their feigned expressions and motives are genuine.
Mrs. Evers has said that the news that the home she shared with her husband Medgar and their three children has been designated a national monument stirs proud and mixed emotions for her.
“It will always be the home that Medgar Evers and I lived, loved and reared our children in until he was shot in the back of the driveway of our home because he fought for his beliefs of justice and equality for all citizens of the United States of America.”