Myrlie Evers-Williams returns to Mississippi as more than a civil rights widow

Myrlie Evers-Williams moves gingerly about the crowd, slowed by her 80-year-old knees. The University of Mississippi chancellor, who has invited her to speak at commencement exercises, takes her hand to lead her down a flight of stairs. Students, black and white, ask to pose for a photo with her as she makes her way to the stage. Her daughter, always nearby, is holding her purse. She is doted on.

Evers-Williams is here, she knows, as a stand-in for an era. What her name evokes in Mississippi — 50 years after her husband, Medgar, was gunned down in their driveway by an avowed racist — is a vivid image of the worst of Southern terrorism. And on the campus of Ole Miss, where she and Medgar fought for integration, she is here on this May morning as part of an ongoing dance of racial reconciliation.

“I don’t know what to say besides thank you for all you’ve done for our state,” says Kevin Cozart, a tall, white graduate student, taking her hand.

They are both dressed in cap and gown, giving the exchange an air of formality softened by helpings of Southern politeness.

“Who would have thought 50 years ago?” she says, thanking him for being so kind.

Evers-Williams, too, is tall. She wears her graying hair in a short Afro and stands straight as an arrow, broad shoulders back the way she was taught so many years ago when she was a shy little girl, forced by her grandmother to read the church announcements or recite a poem.

Unsolicited, the whites here, including a former governor and the university chancellor, will almost uniformly describe Evers-Williams in the same way — a woman who has every right in the world to be bitter but is not.

They mean this as a compliment, but it is a simplification, their image of her frozen on the day Myrlie Evers and her three children became the national face of black grief. She was 30 years old, her black face streaming with tears beneath a black hat, a grieving body cloaked in a black dress, white-gloved hands holding on to her weeping son. She was the first of the women who would become known as civil rights widows. Before Betty Shabazz in 1965 and Coretta Scott King in 1968, she conveyed such sadness that the nation was forced to face her anguish.

Fifty years later on the campus of Ole Miss, the description of Evers-Williams as long-suffering and forgiving is in one way patently false. More than any of the other civil rights widows, Myrlie Evers showed America her rage. She let the nation see her unfiltered emotion when two all-white juries refused to convict Medgar’s killer, during a time when black anger was not an acceptable display of emotion. She wrote a book and began it with this line: “Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband.”

Evers-Williams eventually saw to it that the shooter was brought to justice. Memories are never far, but with that justice came a transformation and transcendence of grief. So, too, did she rise above the tropes of widowhood that sought to define and limit her as a woman.

Before she addresses the Ole Miss commencement, Evers-Williams confesses that she has not decided what to say.

“Mrs. Evers-Williams, what’s in your heart?” Ole Miss Chancellor Daniel Jones asks. “You’ll say the right thing.”

‘The Evers woman’

In the Mississippi that Myrlie Beasley was born in, black women were not called “Mrs.” — an honorific reserved for white women. The last time she lived in the state, she was called “Myrlie” or “the Evers woman” in newspaper articles.

“It makes you realize a thousand different ways that white Southerners found to degrade African Americans,” says Jerry Mitchell, a journalist at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson who has known Evers-Williams since the 1980s.

Between 1882 and 1927, 517 African Americans were lynched in the state, the highest number in the nation for any state during that period. Later came the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally killed for the offense of whistling at a white woman, and civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, lynched by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. There are ghosts in Mississippi.

The state was a wretched place for a black girl born in 1933, but Myrlie Beasley did not know it. Raised by her Baptist churchgoing grandmother, who was part of the upper echelon of Vicksburg’s Negro society, little Myrlie started learning piano at age 4. Her aunt insisted that she listen exclusively to classical music. She was taught to “achieve, achieve, achieve.”

She came from a people who believed the status quo in Mississippi was unchangeable. They delivered her to Alcorn State, a black land-grant university not far from Vicksburg. The first hour she was on campus she met Medgar Evers, an upperclassman and war veteran who believed in racial equality. He was a football player, eight years her senior, and he pretended to like classical music, lounging around the piano room on campus as she practiced. She was smitten.

On Christmas Eve in 1951, they married. Myrlie was, she says, “a young 18.” Their differences began to emerge. Medgar came home with a gift for his new bride — a membership card for the NAACP. He moved her to the Delta, where she saw poverty of the likes she had not seen before. There, Medgar sold insurance to poor African Americans and sought to get them to register to vote. In 1954, Medgar applied to law school at Ole Miss against Myrlie’s wishes — she was pregnant and did not want to attract attention to her growing family. He was rejected because he was black.

By 1955, White Citizens’ Councils, dedicated to maintaining segregation, were forming throughout the state. That same year, Medgar and Myrlie established an NAACP field office in Jackson.

A ‘fire’ below the surface

Evers-Williams is in her hotel suite on the Ole Miss campus, leaning back in a big chair. The sun is shining on her face, revealing circles under her eyes.

“Get some rest, Mom,” Reena calls out from the next room.

But telling a visitor her story gives her energy. She could talk for hours. She does talk for hours.

Medgar had a way of getting under her skin. She can’t remember the argument. Maybe it was about the need to put together a meal for their three babies and some notable out-of-town guest — Lena Horne or James Baldwin — on a paltry two-week food budget of $25. Maybe it was the stress of working as his secretary at the NAACP. Maybe it was the pressures of the movement. Whatever the issue, she was arguing a point passionately. He laughed at her, gave her that smile-smirk of his and headed for the door. As he did, she took a saucer and threw it at him. It missed.

“He stopped and turned and walked on out the door laughing as hard as he could,” Evers-Williams recalls. “He was human. He enjoyed getting me to that point. Everybody said to me, ‘Oh, you’re so nice. You’re so nice.’ But he would say, ‘She has fire within her.’ ”

Evers-Williams says her husband saw her as a leader, pushed her to define what she believed in. As the threats on his life intensified, he made her promise to take care of their children. A few minutes after midnight on June 12, 1963, Medgar’s light-blue Oldsmobile pulled into the driveway.

Twenty-three days earlier he had delivered a historic 17-minute televised address calling for equal rights for all Mississippi citizens. Medgar Evers demanded the time on local television under Federal Communications Commission guidelines after Jackson’s segregationist mayor had gone on TV insisting on an end to civil rights demonstrations.

Outside the couple’s home, Byron De La Beckwith, a salesman and member of his local White Citizens’ Council, lay in wait. The carport light was on, and Medgar was pulling out a bundle of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go!” Beckwith fired a shot as Evers was putting a key to the door. Myrlie and the three children — Darrell, Reena and Van — were awake even at that late hour. She had allowed them to stay up to watch President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights address. The moment Darrell and Reena heard the shot, they pulled their little brother off the bed and crawled to the bathroom.

Myrlie opened the front door to find Medgar laying face down, blood and flesh everywhere. Neighbors placed Medgar on Reena’s mattress and slid him into a station wagon. He was gone.

Almost immediately, Myrlie’s grief was matched by rage. There was rage at her husband’s killer, of course. Then there was the rage at the criminal justice system, which twice tried and failed to convict Beckwith, even though his fingerprints were on the rifle left behind. Then came the hard, knotty, choking fury at the state of Mississippi.

Her own voice

“We have been linked together through all that has happened in this state of Mississippi,” she says from behind the podium at Ole Miss, her contralto soaring over the multiracial crowd of 21,000. “There are those who worked and who still work to see that Mississippi rises from the very bottom of what people think to the very top of what America can be, and that is what you represent. . . . I choose to think, [you are] not a part of the problem but a part of the solution because education-wise you are at the top. Emotionally that’s still being worked on. And let’s be honest, we know that. But I believe. I believe in the state of Mississippi, that it can become a better place.”

Evers-Williams had set a high bar for herself. She wanted to say the encouraging things required of a commencement speaker, but she also wanted to provoke, to confront and to tell Mississippi that five decades later the work is not yet complete. She wanted to evoke the story of her first husband, who loved and died for Mississippi. At the same time, she wanted to establish her authority and to make clear that she is not speaking to them merely as a widow.

Yet this week, she agreed again to wear that mantle to ensure that Medgar would not be forgotten. On Tuesday, she was welcomed to the White House by President Obama. On Wednesday, she will hold a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, where Medgar, who served in Normandy, is interred. She will take part in a discussion at the Newseum on Medgar’s life. In Jackson, there are a string of events leading up to a gala on the anniversary of his death.

The travel has been wearying. She bargains with her body, but sleep will have to wait.

“When I reach a stage of fatigue, I rely on sheer determination,” she says. “My grandmother Annie almost on a daily basis said, ‘God make me a blessing.’ I don’t go around praying that, but it is in me.”

After Medgar

In the wake of her husband’s death, Myrlie Evers, then 30, was left with the task of composing a life anew.

She contemplated suicide but decided her children needed her too much. In 1964, she moved them to Claremont, Calif., which she describes in her memoir as a “lily-white” suburb of Los Angeles. She joined a church, returned to college and climbed the corporate ladder. She lost a long-shot bid for Congress but was later appointed to the L.A. Board of Public Works.

In 1995, Evers-Williams ran for chair of the then-scandal-ridden NAACP’s 64-member board and won by one vote.

“Others were bemoaning its demise,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson says. “She stepped in and assumed leadership.”

She battled the NAACP’s patriarchy, once keeping the board in an 11-hour meeting — with no bathroom break — to force the organization to deal with her agenda.

“She handles herself with such grace that it’s almost like a beehive,” says her friend Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP’s New York State Conference. “She is stinging you, and you don’t even know it.”

She built strong bonds with Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King. She called them her sisters. They were aware of the world’s expectations of a civil rights widow — that she would remain an upstanding, chaste reminder of her husband’s legacy. They were seen as “the long-suffering female . . . this mother that forgives and that takes pain upon pain,” says Joy James, a Williams College professor who has studied the lives of women in the civil rights movement.

Myrlie found the stereotype suffocating. She would laugh with Shabazz about the knock-down, drag-out arguments she and Medgar sometimes had and was incredulous that King swore she and Martin Luther King Jr. never argued.

Evers-Williams’s life was marked by another important difference, something that separated her from their shared, tragic history: She remarried in 1975.

Walter Williams, her second husband, was a longshoreman and union activist. She calls him her soul mate, a mature love. Williams died days after Myrlie’s election as chairman of the NAACP’s board.

“After the vote, she made her way back” home, recalls Julian Bond, the civil rights activist. “He died in her arms. I have always thought that story told of her determination and energy and fearlessness.”

Home again

Evers-Williams moved back to Mississippi last year. She had not lived in the state since Medgar’s murder.

“I would come back to renew, renew the spirit,” she says after the Ole Miss speech. “To come back and visit people that had been through the fire with me, to remember the old times — to re-fuel. But to come back? . . . Not in my wildest dreams. Never, ever.”

Evers-Williams lives in Lorman, Miss., where she is a scholar-in-residence at Alcorn State. She often visits her daughter in Jackson, where the Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute is based, and keeps an apartment in Claremont.

She has been in a season of dreams fulfilled. She sang at Carnegie Hall in December at the invitation of the leader of the pop orchestra Pink Martini, who had heard her say at a TEDx talk that performing at the hall had been a childhood wish.

Then came Obama’s second inauguration, a full-circle moment that erases the disappointment of not speaking during the March on Washington in August 1963. Traffic delays caused her to miss her appointed time on the program, and she never spoke that day.

When she is not on the road, she is on the campus where she met Medgar.

Being 80 and being back home triggers memories that can take her to that place where she talks to Medgar in that inside voice. On a recent day, she said: “Medgar, I’m tired. It’s been 50 years.” She heard his voice, and pictured his face with that sly smile.

“Nobody told you to put in 50 years,” she heard.

In some ways, she didn’t have a choice. America didn’t let her. Still, she did not argue with the ghost.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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