Activist’s action and words resonate with college audience
Myrlie Evers-Williams, acclaimed author, civil rights advocate and widow of slain activist Medgar Evers, spoke at Scripps College’s Garrison Theater on November 7, asking audience members to examine their consciences and commit.
Mr. Evers was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement, becoming the NAACP’s first field secretary for Mississippi in 1954. Ms. Evers-Williams was right by her husband’s side, serving as her husband’s secretary and helping to organize voter registration drives and demonstrations.
“When I was a very young bride, people would come together in Jackson, Mississippi and walk discreetly so as not to bring attention to the house where we would have a meeting,” she said. “It was a time of secrecy, a time of fear, but a time of determination.”
Once back at home, Ms. Evers-Williams and her husband would discuss their next move. Occasionally, she would tell Mr. Evers that a certain campaign seemed too dangerous. One day, when she was taking a cautionary stance, her husband turned to her and asked: “Myrlie, isn’t there anything you believe in enough to fight for?”
Over the years, Ms. Evers-Williams said she has posed the same question to others countless times.
A willingness to fight did not come without a price. In the early 1960s, Mr. Evers—who was active in attempts to de-segregate the University of Mississippi and bring the assailants of the murdered black teen Emmett Till to justice, among other efforts—became the target of white supremacists.
On June 12, 1963, he was shot in the back in his driveway. Ms. Evers-Williams and other advocates worked tirelessly for more than 30 years before the gunman, White Citizens Council member Byron Da La Beckwith, was convicted of murder.
It has been 50 years since Mr. Evers’ assassination. In the intervening decades, Ms. Evers-Williams has done much more than mourn. After her husband’s death, she moved to Claremont with their three children and soon after began attending Pomona College, earning a degree in sociology in 1968.
She took a few courses at Scripps in the process, and so described her Garrison Theater appearance as a homecoming. She has a particular memory of a time when, with her grieving still fresh, she sought solace in the chapel-like space of the Margaret Fowler Garden Oratory on the Scripps campus.
“I don’t believe I prayed, but I believe I meditated,” she said. “I felt comforted, I felt hope, I felt even a kind of joy.”
In 1967, Ms. Evers-Williams published For Us, the Living, the story of Mr. Evers’ life and death and exploring the impact of his legacy. In 1999, she released her memoirs, Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be.
Ms. Evers-Williams was the first African-American woman to serve as the commissioner on the Board of Public Works for the city of Los Angeles and served as chairman of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998. Last January, she delivered the invocation at the second ceremonial inauguration of President Barack Obama.
As Ms. Evers-Williams pointed out, the United States, too, has come a long way since 1963. While change has been slow and incomplete, she asserts it has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Ms. Evers-Williams acknowledged the efforts of brave newspaper editors in the deep South to chronicle the Civil Rights struggle in the face of violence. Other media outlets have also helped change the cultural landscapes. Once, she related, the TV would go black when a person of color—a luminary such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne—appeared on the screen.
“People who saw the future and saw a need to correct this ill filed a suit with the FCC, and today [minorities] own so much of the airwaves,” she said.
Ms. Evers-Williams noted that the entertainment industry has increasingly highlighted the struggles of nonwhites, beginning with the release of the 1977 TV mini-series Roots and continuing with recent films like The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and 42.
Ms. Evers-Williams also applauded advances by women, noting how many female politicians have been elected over the past 50 years. Despite such advances, she warns that it’s dangerous to become complacent.
“When I talk to young people, they often say, ‘How was it in your day?’” she said. “The question is how is it today, and what are we going to do to make this a better place for each and everyone of us?”
Ms. Evers-Williams was in the frontlines of the drive to end the wide-scale disenfranchisement blacks in America once faced.
“I no longer have to guess the numbers of beans in a jar or attempt to answer a silly question like ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap’ so I can vote,’” she said.
This past June, however, key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were overturned. Now, there are places where you need five or six pieces of identification in order to vote, she said. It’s proof positive that liberty demands vigilance.
Ms. Evers-Williams has little patience for people who say their vote doesn’t count, noting, “When I ran for the position of NAACP chair, I won by one vote.”
Ms. Evers-Williams aimed the conclusion of her speech at the young people in the audience.
“We cannot stop. We cannot look back and say that was then and this is now and there are no problems,” she said. “We are human beings, and we are strong and we are weak and we are everything that falls in between. Do you believe in anything enough to stand up and fight for it?”
Ms. Evers-Williams’ talk was met with a full house and a standing ovation.
“I feel so lucky. I’m 18 years old and listening to this amazing woman,” said one attendee, Scripps College freshman Rachel Berner-Hays. “She’s reflecting on her last 50 years, and I’m thinking of what I’m going to do with my next 50 years.
Ms. Evers-Williams’ challenge resonated deeply with Ms. Berner-Hays.
“What will I stand up and fight for? It’s a really good guiding question to ask myself.”