Extended Interview: Myrlie Evers-Williams
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NEWSHOUR: The Clarion-Ledger was such a divisive force in Jackson for so long. What were your feelings walking in here today to address the editorial board here?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I had a very good feeling about it, actually. Somewhat amused in a very positive way that I was here to address the editorial board, knowing full well that some years ago no one would have considered that a possibility. I have watched the growth of — and I call it growth — of this paper from years past and I certainly hope and trust that the reporting will continue in a vein where it’s open and it’s fair and that it’s inclusive. Looking at the members of the editorial board and just seeing the different groups represented here was also a very good feeling.
If I go back, years ago, remembering this newspaper and a couple of others in the state, there’s such a major contrast. I remember so well, an editorial on the first page of this paper that called for and said that blood would flow in the streets if we continued to pursue equality and justice in this state. It’s completely different in terms of that. So, as I walked in, I really had flashbacks to those things that we had such difficulty with in the ’50s and the ’60s.
None of the news of what my people were doing in our community was available to us. Eventually there was a little throw section that spoke specifically to the, as we knew it then, the Negro community. But when you find a publication that is widely read calling for threats against people who happen to be the underdog at that time, it’s just not right. And we had no say-so, we had no voice in it.
One of the editorial cartoons that I just recently saw from this newspaper had in it a large volume, a book, that said “Mississippi’s human relations”, or something to that fact, as though the State of Mississippi had [made strides] in that. But on the top of that book was a pool of blood, that had my late husband’s name on it — Medgar Evers.
One had the feeling that the editorial was saying of all the good works that Mississippi has done, here’s this bloodstain on it that says we really shouldn’t have done that, it’s a shame here in Mississippi. But what good body of work had the state really done?
After Medgar’s death, almost immediately, things began to change. And as I tell young people that I speak to, it was a significant change, but those things were so minute. For instance, almost immediately, we had school crossing guards.
Can you envision a group of people protesting, trying to get school crossing guards? I mean, that we take for granted today? It’s no problem whatsoever. Shortly thereafter, a few policemen were hired who happen to have been black, but they were restricted to their own neighborhoods.
Regardless of what crime they witness, if those who were perpetrating the crime were Caucasian, they couldn’t arrest them. Just one change after another. Medgar often said we live behind the cotton curtain as far as the media was concerned. At that time, without email and all of those good things that we have now, we relied upon Western Union to get the information in terms of murders and — I might as well just call them what they were — lynchings and other disturbances out to the media beyond the cotton curtain of Mississippi.
I just feel very fortunate that I’ve lived this long to see the changes and I realize, too, that, you know, there’s still work to be done. But at least people, for the most part, seem to be open to that.
NEWSHOUR: You were speaking before in the board meeting about how profoundly pleasing it was to come back here and see how it’s changed. How do those old front-page editorials strike you now?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: They strike me in a historical — in a very strong historical sense now. That’s what it was then. Where are we now and what must we do to keep things from ever going back to that point in our history. However, then in ’63, one was not shocked by that; by the viciousness of the headlines; by the unfair reporting of what was happening for inciting people to violence. And that’s really what happened. We in the black community — and as I said, we were then called Negroes — we were not shocked at all by that. We hoped that one day it would change. We also thought and worked very hard to raise funds to have our own newspaper where we could have a voice. And in some sense that did happen. I look now, today, at the newspapers, the magazines, the television stations that we, as a people own and we have the ability to tell our own story.
I just hope to see much more of it. I would love to see a major movie studio, television studio. Well, we have television studios here in Jackson that are managed and owned by African-Americans. But I’d love to see a major movie studio where we could portray the likeness of our people in a manner in which we think would be fair and right to do so.
NEWSHOUR: Tell me more about The Clarion-Ledger’s effort in leading the charge, in many ways, to open these old cases and [investigative reporter] Jerry Mitchell’s role in the paper’s efforts.
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Jerry Mitchell has become a very dear friend of mine. Through lots of hard work, his investigative expertise and in helping us have the ammunition to have a third murder trial in Medgar’s case where there was a guilty verdict. That was something I had worked on in my own way for years looking for information hoping that something would come up where there could be a third trial. And eventually that did happen.
I know the third trial, along with the work of The Clarion-Ledger, led by Jerry said a thousand words to the national public as a whole. That even though these murders, these lynchings, these assassinations took place years ago, there’s still time to right those wrongs. That there is still information out there that can justify reopening these cases and going on to a third trial.
That is something I feel so very, very good about. And I will not be modest here at all. I know that it was the Medgar Evers trial, the third trial with a guilty verdict, that gave others a sense that, perhaps, justice could be done in their case as well. I don’t believe that Jerry Mitchell always had an easy time in writing, getting his articles approved. I suspect there was some discussion about that. But it’s something that speaks to his perseverance and to mine. And to a fairness now in journalism that we find with The Clarion-Ledger.
I do believe that this newspaper has received awards for the role that they played in fair reporting. Looking at the members of the editorial board was very satisfying today. Because it is a board that’s inclusive. We never would have thought that would have ever been possible some years ago. Perhaps it sounds as though I’m singing the praises of the paper. I am singing the praise of Jerry Mitchell and, perhaps, the newspaper for the distance in which it has come.
Because it’s truly a leader in that sense from other newspapers here in the state and others, particularly in the South, who still have not met the openness, the fairness of reporting that this newspaper has. But I also happen to be a realist and I know that you cannot always count on progress once you’ve seen some indication of it. You have to continually be aware of the need to apply a little pressure to do better. And without that there’s always a chance of slipping back into some of the same practices as we had in the past.
NEWSHOUR: Do you think that third trial would have come about without the work of the paper?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I certainly think that the possibility of the third trial was enhanced by the paper. If I can be more specific, I believe that the third trial was made possible by Jerry Mitchell persevering, working, trying to change some concepts within the paper; of being strong enough to meet the challenges from within and from without.
I also believe that the third trial came about because of a young assistant district attorney, Bobby DeLaughter, who put himself out on the line. And, not to be modest, I certainly think that the third trial came about because I persevered over the years when I was told that I was being very foolish to expect a third trial and, certainly, very foolish to expect a conviction.
So at this point, I think it was the three of us and the paper came along with it because it was a good thing to do. It was the expedient thing to do because the media around the country and the world covered this and they couldn’t be left with everyone else covering [something that was] happening right here. I also believe that finally the knowledge of and respect of being a social conscience for the people in the state of Mississippi kicked in and social responsibility became something that this newspaper embraced.
NEWSHOUR: What do you think it’s done for a paper in the city of Jackson, and for the State of Mississippi as a whole, to bring these cases up?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I think it’s a bold step for this publication to move in the direction in which they have moved. … It’s also critically important that the public, through letters to the editor and other ways keep the publication on the right path on which it’s going. I have certainly come across the attitude that all of the things that happened in the ’60s, the ’50, the ’40s, that’s in the past, let it stay there.
Why bring it up again today? And those who feel strongly about that to those who say, well, let’s move forward with all force, to those who don’t care one way or the other. I speak from experience of that in terms of what happened when we were involved with the third murder trial. And the reporters went around in the vicinity of Jackson and asked a similar question.
Do you think that this trial should be held? Should the case be reopened? I was horrified when one of the persons interviewed, a young woman who appeared to be not much more than 18 years of age said “I don’t know why she” meaning me, “would want to bring all of that up again. The man is old, that’s in the past we don’t need to bother with that.”
And I thought … you’re the very person I want to target to educate, because you’re too young to know what happened then, but you can’t see the benefit of that knowledge and transferring it into some kind of positive action for today, regardless of what we are discussing. And that was the end of that story.
But, regardless of what it is that we are discussing, we’re going to always find, I think, those three components there. Those people who say, wash it away, it’s in the past, it’s not relevant to today, to those in the middle who could care less one way or the other, to those to the other extreme who say let’s go forward and do the best we can. So, that’s normal. I would hope that the percentage of people who are positive about moving forward is much higher than those who are not.
NEWSHOUR: We were talking in the editorial board meeting about reconciliation in Mississippi and in the United States, as a whole. What do you think the paper’s role has been in that transformation, both within Jackson and the country?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, I know that the changes that have taken place, editorially and otherwise, with this paper have played a very, very important role in helping the population move forward. Move forward in terms of race relations, in particular. You know there was a time when my people were not given the courtesy of a title. We were all boy, girl, James or Annie, regardless of our names. I recall the time when we were not allowed to try on clothes, shoes.
Those were things that were talked about as being positive at the time with the newspaper. There were no complaints about that. That is correct because they belong in their place and that is their place. The media determines to a great degree how the overall public sees anyone and any issue. They have to set the tone. The admiration of the Citizens’ Council — you know, they were praised in the newspaper. We now know that that was a vicious organization that set up many people for surveillance, incorrect reports on them.
All geared toward one thing, violence if need be to keep a certain group of people down.
That’s changed with many people having paid a supreme price to see that that was changed. I recall at the end of Medgar’s funeral here in Jackson — and there were reporters from around the world to cover that event. People broke into this emotional trot and then a race through town and they all cried out in unison one time after another “after Medgar, no more fear, after Medgar no more fear.” And it was a turning point where people began to demand that there be changes in the media coverage. Changes with jobs, changes with the way we were treated in the terms of our dignity and whatnot. In a way it was forced upon these institutions to make those changes.
They did not go quietly into the night. They were forced into change because of the times. Hopefully, today, it’s something that businesses, corporations, newspapers, television stations do because they have a strong sense of social responsibility. That they help to determine the way in which this nation thinks and the way its people act.
NEWSHOUR: Do you think that with the work that Jerry’s done and the work that the paper’s done on these old cases that the paper has redeemed itself in some ways?
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: What is redemption? Has the paper redeemed itself? Redemption is an ongoing factor. Perhaps one should not try to sit in judgment today. I would like to see in 30 years, if I were around, what was happening then. What progress has been made from today to 10, 15 years from now. There’s always room for improvement.
I’m not sure that anyone connected really wanted to redeem itself. Time, people forced that. I would hope we would look at redemption now as from this day forward. What are we doing on a volunteer basis, not what we are doing because we have to do it. Not doing it because we have to sell newspapers.
And, of course, the business of business is making a profit. But I would hope, and it appears that this paper has decided, that they can make a profit by fair reporting and that all people to some degree have dollars that they place in those containers to get the newspapers out.