Civil Rights Activist Myrlie Evers-Williams

The Civil Rights Activist discusses her husband, Medgar Evers, legacy and the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Myrlie Evers-Williams created her own legacy after the death of her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers. She succeeded in bringing his killer to justice—after 30 years—and is an advocate for racial justice and women's equality. She helped found the National Women's Political Caucus and was the first African American woman on L.A.'s Board of Public Works. She developed the first corporate booklet on women in non-traditional jobs, and was the first woman and first layperson to deliver the invocation at a presidential inauguration (President Obama's second). Evers-Williams has co-written several books and is a scholar-in-residence at Alcorn State.

TRANSCRIPT

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Tavis: I am pleased and honored always anytime to welcome to this program Myrlie Evers-Williams. The long-time activist and wife of slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, has donated all of her late husband’s papers to the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opening in Jackson, Mississippi on December 9. A delight always to see you.

Myrlie Evers-Williams: Tavis, it’s always my pleasure. And if you don’t mind, when I found out that the invitation had been extended to me, I went back years ago when you were a little boy running around in the halls of City Hall opening everybody’s door.

“Well, what do you do here? Well, show me what you’re doing.” “Tavis, would you please go on? We’re trying to work.” And all of those memories kept coming back and I’m just absolutely delighted to be here with you.

Tavis: I’m honored to have you here. This is going to sound like a mutual admiration society because it is. Because God works in mysterious ways…

Evers-Williams: His wonders to perform.

Tavis: To perform. I have no idea, obviously, as a kid born in Mississippi that I would ever meet the wife of Medgar Evers, much less become a friend of hers. And then, as God would have it, I end up with a television show years later and your son, Van, ends up being our principal photographer. Your niece, Sheila, ends up being our makeup artist.

And you would just be — I think it would bring you to tears if you saw the number of people — I should turn this way. Every guest who appears on our television program when they leave the program, Van Evers, Myrlie’s baby, Van gives them…

Evers-Williams: Indeed, indeed.

Tavis: Yes. Van gives them a set of photos that he has taken of them during our conversation. Not that his mama needs another photo of me and her, but when she leaves the set tonight, Van will give her two or three photos of her appearance on the show. He does that for every guest on this program.

You would be amazed — I look to you now — you’d be amazed, I think, every now and then for certain people who I know really appreciate the legacy of Medgar and Myrlie Evers, I will tell certain guests the picture that you just received as a gift was taken by the youngest son of Myrlie and Medgar Evers.

Evers-Williams: Thank you, Tavis [laugh].

Tavis: No, no. I’m saying that because my staff has seen this. We have seen people break down on this stage and cry when they realize that Van is part of this Evers family and he’s the photographer who gives them photos.

It’s a long way of saying that, when you’re a kid running around in Mississippi or in City Hall in L.A., you never know how these things are gonna work out, so it’s always an honor to have you on this program again.

Evers-Williams: Well, thank you. Just let me say in referring to Van and his dad, Medgar never left the house without taking his Argus C3 camera, and I have photographs, photographs, photographs. To me, it’s almost spiritual that his son would develop that same talent and same desire.

Needless to say, that I’m so very proud of him and all he contributes with his work and to be able to work with you is just a big plus. So I’m a big winner. I have two sons here together who are successful.

Tavis: Well, it’s a family gathering tonight. Speaking of family, we are both — I can’t speak for you, but I think we’re both proud to be Mississippians, are we not?

Evers-Williams: A little pause, yes. 98% of the time, I am. But, Tavis, that has to be considered with the pain and the suffering that Mississippians have gone through, both colors that we have there, but particularly with my family. There was a hate-love relationship there. Fortunately, I have moved forward with that.

Mississippi is Mississippi. Medgar believed in it. He believed in the possibilities of Mississippi growing and becoming a major part of the progress of America and that’s what he gave his life for. I, on the other hand, did not feel that way at all. Very angry, very disappointed, and certainly with Medgar’s death, it was almost more than I could bear.

I entertained myself at times by imagining what I could do going around the state of Mississippi in secrecy striking back and striking out not only when Medgar was killed, but before that time with all of those things that happened that were so disheartening and distasteful, and Mississippi was at the bottom of the pole of all of the states in the country.

But there was something else. There was a little bit of love there that never went away and I couldn’t understand how Medgar could embrace the state with all of its evils and whatnot, but he believed that there was a possibility that it could grow, that it could become what we say we want in this United States of America, freedom to pursue who we are and to develop ourselves in the best way possible.

I, on the other hand, shunned that. We had many arguments about it and he said, “You have to believe.” And my thing was, “I believe in you, but don’t go too far.” But he could not walk away from his beliefs and paid for it with his life.

Tavis: Joe Morton, the great actor, was here not too long ago who plays Dick Gregory in the one man show.

Evers-Williams: Wonderful.

Tavis: Have you seen it yet?

Evers-Williams: Yes!

Tavis: Okay, good. So you know what I’m talking about. So I saw him in New York and I was sitting in my seat in tears when he got to the scene of the time that Dick spent with Medgar in Mississippi just hours, days, before he was assassinated.

When you sit in a theater and you watch stuff like that, or you’re at home turning the TV channel and you stop and see something come across the screen all these years later, like how do you process? Like how did you process that sitting in the theater watching this scene of Dick and Medgar in Mississippi?

Evers-Williams: It is still extremely painful. I would be lying if I say not. But it also serves as a motivator. Get up, do, change, give, and never stop fighting for those things that Medgar believed in and that Dick Gregory believed in. Dick was a true friend. Medgar could pick up a phone and say, “Dick?” And Dick would say, “Where, when?” They just read each other like that.

I recall the first time that I saw the play advertised and I said, “Wait a minute! They can’t use that! Those were Medgar’s words!”, the last words that he spoke, I’m told, just before he died in the hospital, “Turn me loose”.

Not grammatically correct, but at that point, when you’re about to go off into the hereafter, who cares about grammar? But it was the meaning, it was the feeling of it, and it’s captured so beautifully in this story about Dick Gregory. My daughter and I were a part of the speakers at Dick’s funeral.

Tavis: I saw that, yeah.

Evers-Williams: I relived everything there for that moment. And to see the play — and I must say this. My son took me to see that play — I was so moved not only by the words that my husband had spoken, but by the acting. It was superb. It…

Tavis: Joe’s a brilliant actor, yeah, yeah.

Evers-Williams: It moved me from sitting in that seat to where he was in that play, and being so thankful for people like Dick Gregory who just gave so freely. Medgar would call and Dick would say, “Where?” He wouldn’t even have to ask. “Where? What?”

It was that kind of friendship, that kind of bond that, when I think about the civil rights movement, when I think about Mississippi, when I think about America today, it was that kind of faith, that kind of structure, that kind of love that helped to eliminate so much of the hatred that we had in this country.

Tavis: I’m working my way up through this conversation to these museums. I’m gonna get there, I promise [laugh]. We’re gonna get to these museums before this conversation’s over. But there’s so much on my mind. So the other day — and I see this all the time, but it just hit me the other day in a way that it hadn’t hit me in a while knowing that I was gonna see you on this program tonight.

So one of my favorite possessions in the entire world, in the whole world, I’ve collected a lot of stuff over the years, but one of the things that means the most to me, I have a photo in my house of you, Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, and me. You see why it means so much to me.

Evers-Williams: Yeah.

Tavis: I was looking at that photo the other day and thinking that Medgar is gone, Martin is gone, Malcolm is gone, Betty is gone, Coretta is gone, and you are here on this show tonight. Again, God works in mysterious ways…

Evers-Williams: HIs wonders to perform.

Tavis: To perform. You’re still here.

Evers-Williams: I don’t know why, but I am, I think [laugh]. I think I’m still here. Tavis, I don’t know. It is a kind of miracle and I’m so thankful to be here and to be on this show with you. I truly am, because I admire you so much. Yes, you’re my child, so to speak, but I just have such admiration for you and what you do with what you have with this show.

And it makes such an impact on people everywhere who watch that. It’s a sense of pride. I can sit tall and throw my shoulders back and as I told people where I live now, “Oh, I won’t be there today. I’m going to be interviewed on the Tavis Smiley Show.” “What?” They know immediately and, again, I say God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.

I’m just so thankful and blessed to be in your company and to be here and to see what you do with your show. Because it impacts people, I believe, worldwide. It’s the same thing with the play, “Turn Me Loose”, you know.

The people in the theater, when Van and I were there, were so caught up in the emotion of it all and you could almost see them taking in the depth of the movement and you could almost feel the spirit of the people of that time in that theater. And that’s what we are looking for and hoping for for those who go to the Mississippi museums, even though I have to admit I still have a problem with that.

Tavis: Let me cut in and explain this. I know where you’re going with this. Let me cut in right quick. I know where you’re going and I want to explain this. So there are not one, but two museums that are opening up in Mississippi. I’ll let you explain the back story for how the two have figured out a way to coexist. Tell me why there are two museums about to open as opposed to one facility. Why are there two?

Evers-Williams: Tavis, it’s still my problem. I don’t believe in separate and equal. That may not be the case with those two museums, but it speaks to that. And for those of us who have worked so long and so hard to have one unit, it’s a little difficult to swallow. Those two museums are very important.

You know, I visited during the construction and I asked why two? The funding from the state, the funding from people from the outside, why do have to have two? It’s the same old separate, but equal? Of course not, was the answer.

Okay, well, look at what you have. There’s steps that join the two. But in my mind, going back over the years, it’s two separate ones. The staff and the architects and others who are involved have worked very, very hard to be sure that that’s not what people will see or think about when they come.

Tavis: Are they telling two different stories or is it all part and parcel of the same story of the State of Mississippi?

Evers-Williams: It’s all part of the same story, but it’s also separate. Because you have the story of Mississippi and then a few steps that take you into the civil rights part of it. I was at the dedication and we had this large crowd gathered there. I was the last speaker and I said something that I was criticized for. That’s okay. I’ve been criticized…

Tavis: Yeah, not the first time [laugh].

Evers-Williams: Yeah. I’ve been criticized so much, it really doesn’t matter. But I stood there and we were on this elevated land and I told the people, “Look over that hill. That is where our children, when the adults were afraid to demonstrate, our children demonstrated.

They locked them up in that open space. They brought food in tin tubs, they brought water in those tubs. And the policemen would plop it down, spit in it, and say, “This is for you.” You know, for me, I can’t get that out of my mind.

I wish I could in a way, but I’m so hopeful that the two museums separated by steps will speak to the growth in Mississippi, will speak to the promise that we have there and that the steps will not be a divider between Mississippi and civil rights, because they’re both the same.

Tavis: Same, yeah. I’ve been reading about this, again, as a Mississippian myself, I’ve been reading and apparently it’s the hottest ticket in the state. They said the thing sold out like the minute tickets went on sale. It sold out like immediately.

So people are anxious to see a state like Mississippi that finally comes to terms with its past in a museum setting. And if the success that the museum is having in Washington is any arbiter, you guys are gonna be very successful.

Because that thing in Washington is still — they tell me of all the monuments in Washington, it is still the hottest ticket to get to the Smithsonian, the Black museum in D.C. So I suspect that this thing will do very well in Mississippi. Let me ask you how you went about making the decision to give all of Medgar Evers’ papers to this particular project.

Evers-Williams: That’s not exactly correct.

Tavis: Okay. Let me rephrase it. What did you give? What of Medgar’s and Myrlie’s did you give to this or these museums?

Evers-Williams: There are artifacts in there that we gave. Medgar’s papers were given as such to the original museum some years ago. I am the type of person, I keep every little scrap of paper. It seems, whatever, it’s historical to me. I had no place to keep all of Medgar’s papers.

It seemed only fitting that they should be at home in Mississippi, so I worked with the museum there, the original one, and donated Medgar’s papers, not my papers, there and some of the artifacts. Okay, so here we are today years later and there are still some papers and things there.

But, you know, there’s one thing in particular I’d like to mention. It did not belong to me, Tavis. It belongs to the State of Mississippi now. But the rifle that was used to kill Medgar is a part of the exhibit there. That was not mine, but there are other things there that belonged to my family that have been donated.

I think it’s critically important that those who were searching for materials went beyond the family and went to Medgar’s friends and whatnot. The razor that he used was one of things there. It might be small, but the intricacies of which they worked to put the humanness into the metal, I think, really should be highly recommended.

Tavis: And the house that you lived in, the house that Van was born in, the driveway to which Medgar Evers came home and in which he was assassinated, I’ve been to that house any number of times. I’d never go to Jackson.

My mother and I were just there not too long ago. We went there together and spent the afternoon there and just took pictures and had prayer. So I go there. I don’t like to go to that part of the state and not go visit the house. Is the house now, it’s officially a — what is it? How has it been designated?

Evers-Williams: I understand it is officially a national monument.

Tavis: National monument now, yeah, yeah.

Evers-Williams: I don’t have papers that state that. I need to pursue that and be sure that I have it in my hands. But well taken care of. We, my children and I, donated the house to Tougaloo College because of the magnificent role that Tougaloo played in the civil rights movement.

Just renting it out was devastation to the house and to my heart and soul. So Tougaloo moved from that along with the legislators in Mississippi to have this approved. I mean, that within itself was something of a step.

Tavis: That’s a big deal, yeah.

Evers-Williams: And someone said to me a couple of months ago when I was there, “You never got the blood up off the concrete.” Interestingly enough, after all of these years…

Tavis: That stain in that cement…

Evers-Williams: The stain’s still there.

Tavis: Is still there. I noticed that. That stain in that cement is still there.

Evers-Williams: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, in my anguish now — and I really shouldn’t call it anguish — but in my awareness of the history of my state, a state that Medgar said he loved and that he would give his life for, the state, the people, his people, his children, that it has reached this point where in a few days, you know, hopefully, there will be large crowds there to see artifacts. There will be people coming, I hope, from other countries…

Tavis: Oh, they will.

Evers-Williams: To view it.

Tavis: They’ll be coming.

Evers-Williams: There will be discussions that are going on because, Tavis, I must tell you this. With all of the pain and the suffering that my family has been through and that this country has been through, I am afraid, I am angry, I don’t know what to do about the situation in America today.

And I think back to Mississippi and I hope maybe there will be lessons learned, practices that will start that will help to turn this country around from where we are today.

Tavis: I wrote a piece the other day for a national publication. I tried to make the point that America is lost. And the only thing worse than being lost is being lost and headed in the wrong direction with a guy driving the car who don’t want to take no direction or advice from anybody in the car that could help get us on the right track. I went on to try to make the point that Martin is our GPS, Medgar is our GPS. They are the system…

Evers-Williams: Beautiful analogy. Thank you.

Tavis: They are the system if we listen to them and what they were trying to tell us. We can get America back on the right track and we can find our way. So thank you for your sacrifice and for your service and for your struggle and for always coming back to check on us and your son to make sure he’s behaving [laugh]. And your niece too. Make sure they’re behaving around here, yeah, yeah.

Evers-Williams: Oh, yes. But, Tavis, let me thank you for all that you do to help keep us — I mean, America — on track. People talk about you more than you know in a positive way and the service that you provide with your show, we don’t know what we’d do without you.

Tavis: You’re kind.

Evers-Williams: And I love you dearly.

Tavis: I love you more and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 7, 2017 at 1:59 pm