Civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams will step down from the board of the NAACP, marking an end to her 30 years as an official of the civil rights organization. Evers-Williams, who will retain the honorary title of chair emeritus, had hoped to be in New York for the NAACP’s board meeting on Friday to officially make the announcement but inclement weather kept her home in Mississippi.
“I was called. I delivered, and it’s time for me to step aside and let someone else come in and I hope it will be a more youthful person to take that particular spot,” she said in a phone interview from her home on the campus of Alcorn State University, a black land-grant university not far from Vicksburg where she is a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence. It is also where she met her late husband, Medgar Evers.
Evers-Williams has spent much of the last year honoring the memory of Medgar, NAACP’s first field director in Mississippi. In 1963, he was felled by an assassin’s bullet. For a half hour she spoke about her plans to build on her husband’s legacy, the NAACP’s future and the memoir she is writing. This conversation has been lightly edited.
She The People: Why have you decided not to seek re-election for your seat on NAACP’s board?
Evers-Williams: At this point in my life I am very interested in writing my memoirs, focusing on my years with the NAACP, but particularly the years when I was chairman of the board. Those were pivotal years for the organization and in my life. I do believe that we in the NAACP need to encourage and make space for our young leaders of today. Unfortunately there will always be people who do not embrace justice and equality for all, therefore it’s a need to constantly build and infuse in the minds of young people that this is America; that this is a country where we say all people are created equal. We often say we need new blood in organizations and that is true for the NAACP.
STP: Benjamin Jealous stepped down as NAACP president last year and the organization is searching for a new leader. What does the NAACP need in its next leader?
MEW: It is a human factor to look for different kinds of leadership in an organization. I don’t think that ever stops. The NAACP is no exception and with the former president stepping down, and others [leaving], the NAACP is at a point where it must choose. I’m just very, very hopeful that the choice will be a sound one. I am hopeful, perhaps a little unrealistically, that politics will be put aside. When I was elected years ago as chairman of the board, I won by one vote. One vote. It was not a position that I wanted to seek, but I was encouraged to do so. My second husband Walter Williams and I knew that he had only weeks to live. He was a strong supporter and admirer of Medgar and the NAACP. He said to me: ‘You run. You win.’ … I returned home after that meeting, and I had only four hours before his demise. The challenges were unbelievable. We were $4 million plus in debt. There was discord on all fronts. All of the foundations and organizations that I personally went to to raise funds, I was told that the NAACP was dead. And I received no contributions. Only Ford Foundation stepped up and said: ‘We will provide you with the funds.’ It was not healthy. We brought it to health and full bloom. [Again] I believe that the NAACP will continue its purpose with vim, vigor and vitality and at this board meeting the wisdom of the group will be used in identifying the leadership for the organization.
STP: What will be the focus of the memoir that you are now writing?
MEW: A large part of it will be about the inner workings of the NAACP as well as the various jobs and positions that I have held over the last 60 years that have certainly spoken to the trials and tribulations of women moving into government and business. It will be open and honest, fascinating — because so many people see me only as the widow of Medgar Evers and once head of the NAACP. I will be 81 years old in March and it’s time to pull together the many, many documents that I have to tell the full story of a woman who is more than just a widow.
STP: You are back in Mississippi after living for many years in California and Oregon. How have you been spending your time?
MEW: I had been working with my daughter Renna Evers-Everette and many others in putting together a most fantastic 50th anniversary of Medgar’s assassination and his life as well as paying tribute to other civil rights activists in Mississippi. That has led to the renewal of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute. It has been challenging but wonderful developing the institute. That is my primary activity at this point. We have decided with MMEI that we will work in different ways along with other organizations to develop the next generation of leaders. … We work with volunteers who come to a couple of the middle schools and work with young men of color in three school districts emphasizing the life and the legacy of Medgar Evers. That’s new, and we’re just really getting that off of the ground. It’s wonderful to see those young men — dressed in their pants, shirts and ties — studying with volunteers from sororities and fraternities to help them achieve better grades and to find their place in their communities. That’s our first recall project at this time but with our board we are developing other things.
STP: What did it mean to you to recently be part of the groundbreaking at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum after all you experienced there?
MEW: It was some 20 years ago that I made the recommendation and was laughed at for speaking so boldly, but a month and a half ago the ceremonies took place. We were seated on the knoll where the museum would be built, but it overlooks a very historical site: the fairground. That’s where people both black and white, young and old, were kept in a concentration-like arena [where they were held after protesting segregation laws in downtown Jackson.] The policeman delivered the food and the water in large galvanized tubs, and they would bring it through the gates, spit in it and say ‘This is for you.’ It is hallowed ground for me and others of us who lived through that time.
STP: As you look forward, what are you hoping for?
MEW: My hope for myself personally is to be involved in building the awareness, sensitivity, dedication of young people regardless of race, creed or color in the state of Mississippi, to work to make this state a better state and not to accept the fact that we are always listed as last in all of the surveys. I want to build young leaders as Medgar had worked so hard to do, along with others, and for me to write my memoir.