An activist in her own right, Evers-Williams reflects on the legacy of her slain husband.
Human rights advocate Myrlie Evers-Williams
Tavis: The June 12th, 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home focused national attention on the violent response civil rights activists faced in the Deep South.
His widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, worked for more than three decades to get justice for her husband. Finally, his murderer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
An activist in her own right, Myrlie Evers-Williams became chairwoman of the NAACP and is the author of not one, not two, but three acclaimed nonfiction texts. She joins us now from Washington. Myrlie Evers-Williams, an honor, always, to have you on this program.
Myrlie Evers-Williams: Tavis, I know you know how much I adore you, and how many other people do as well. The driver who brought us to this building said, “I just love him, I just love him,” and we love you and appreciate all that you do.
We’re very proud that you are a Mississippian and you acknowledge that, and I thank you so much for having me on your show today to talk about the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination, and programs that we are about to kick off.
Tavis: Well, I am humbled, first of all, to hear those kind words come out of your mouth. You know I adore you just as much (laughter), so this is one big mutual admiration society.
Evers-Williams: It is.
Tavis: I think the audience knows, and if they don’t, they should. I say it all the time that I just am so fortunate that on this program my makeup artists, I’ve known her for almost 25 years, my makeup artist is a woman named Sheila Evers.
Her father, Charles, is the brother of Medgar Evers. So I have one Evers who I’ve known for 20 years who’s my makeup artist. The other, Myrlie and Medgar’s youngest son, is a fine young man named Van Evers. Van Evers is my staff photographer.
So just to my left off camera here are Sheila and Van, who I see every day that we tape this program. So it’s just an honor for us to have that legacy represented on this show every single night, and to have the aunt of Sheila and the mother of Van –
Evers-Williams: Well, thank you, and we are family.
Tavis: Yeah, we are. (Laughter) We are family. I’m just honored to talk to you, as always, although I wish, I wish we were talking about something different. That is to say I wish that my having gotten to know you over the years and all the time I’ve spent with you and all the conversations we’ve had were about something other than the notion of your husband having been murdered 50 years ago.
Which leads me to this initial question, which is how it is that for five decades you have lived with this. You sought justice and yet you’ve not been bitter. You’ve gone on to do amazing work in your own right. How have you navigated this journey for five decades?
Evers-Williams: Well, I tell you, Tavis, I have at one point been a very angry woman, and someone who was determined to see that justice prevailed and to do whatever else I could do to be sure that people remembered Medgar, what he stood for.
Even though he wanted to be with his family and friends and continue his work, he was willing to give his life to move us forward, his people and the United States of America as a whole.
I had an opportunity to visit a small exhibit in Jackson, Mississippi, and in one room there was the gun, the rifle, that was used to kill Medgar. I was stunned when I first saw it.
Then I looked at it, and I realized that the trigger took his life, but I could just imagine him falling. The fire that came from that, I have come to embrace that as something forward, moving us in a new direction in America, and which we needed terribly.
I’m very human, and I have had my moments of pure, unadulterated hatred. But it wasn’t helping me at all, nor was it helping Medgar’s children. Nor was it helping anyone else.
So you begin to say, well, what can I do that’s positive to help correct some of the ills of society and to continue Medgar’s work, and that’s what I have attempted to do over these 50 years.
So I’ve gotten rid of that deep-seated hatred by working hard, by embracing other people, and keeping Medgar’s name alive. That’s what we are all about on this 50th anniversary.
Tavis: Anniversaries have a way of reminding us of important and seminal events in this country. They have a way of educating people who did not know that history. When all the media spotlight focuses on a particular moment in our American history, people become aware of what they did not know.
I say all that to ask whether or not there has, to your point about anger, whether or not there has ever been any anger that Medgar – my word, my phrase, not yours – that Medgar hasn’t gotten the respect that he deserved.
There are so many other icons in the civil rights movement and beyond whose names people know with ready availability, but what say you about the way that Medgar has been regarded or not over these 50 years on the eve of this anniversary?
Evers-Williams: Well, the fact that Medgar was not really recognized for the work that he did, and how he felt in giving his life, I would read newspaper articles about civil rights leaders or leader and whatnot, and I would say, “Where’s Medgar? Where’s Medgar?”
That is why I have devoted my life to promoting his image, his work. Because having him left out has really been painful to me. I was just determined, one, that I would do what he asked me to do, and that was take care of his children.
Secondly, to prepare myself to play a positive role in society. Three, being sure that people did not forget Medgar. I was in Jackson, Mississippi a couple of years ago and the issue came up about naming a building for Medgar.
I said, “Yes, yes, yes,” and a couple of people said, “No, we already have an airport named for him. We have this named for him.” This woman said to me, “You want everything named for Medgar Evers, don’t you?” I lost it. I said, “You’re darn right I do. Each and every thing in Mississippi should bear his name.”
Of course, that’s taking it a little bit to the extreme, but I’ve been motivated to do everything I could to keep Medgar’s memory and his accomplishments knowledgeable for people.
But I’m finding today that more and more younger people, younger generation, are beginning to pay attention to that period of time. More and more young people are beginning to say, “Tell me something about Medgar Evers.” It’s rewarding, and I’m beginning to feel that all of the hard work is paying off.
Tavis, you know Mississippi is rich with people who gave their lives, gave their money, their homes, everything for justice and equality in that state, and I have been concerned that our young people don’t seem to be familiar with that part of history.
So as a part of my next 50 years, (laughter) we are working to develop the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, which will focus on civic engagement and bringing young people in so they can learn about that period of time, learn about the strategies of Medgar and others, and put that to use in today’s time.
Because we still have the same problems that we had years ago; just a little bit different and a little more subtle. But I’m very concerned about our youth and their awareness of that period of time.
Tavis: I want to come back to your point in a moment about civic engagement. There’s a lot, I think, to deconstruct there. We’ll do that in just a second.
Before I do that, though, to your point of wanting things to be named after Medgar, so for years he didn’t get the kind of respect that he deserved – again, my phrase, not yours.
But now there’s a ship named after him in the U.S. fleet, there is an airport named after him. I’m going to see you in about 24 hours and spend a couple days with you in our home state of Mississippi to celebrate this huge statue on the campus of Alcorn State in Mississippi, in Lorman, honoring Medgar Evers.
The great sculptor Ed Dwight has done it, so I’m anxious to actually see it in person. But tell me more about what you think the value is of people now coming to terms with who he was and what he did.
Evers-Williams: Well, hopefully that history will make people of all races, creeds, and colors think about the injustices that people suffered during the past 50 years.
But also to realize that we still have some of those same ills in society today, and if we don’t own up to that and come together and find constructive ways in which we can become a “community,” we will still suffer from those years in years to come.
I was the commencement speaker at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, as it is known.
That was quite an experience for me. I wasn’t quite so sure how people would react, and then I said, “I don’t care how they will react. I will speak my mind.” I have to do that.
My speech was very well received, and at the end of that commencement, the chancellor apologized to me for Medgar being treated in the manner in which he was treated. I find that interesting, that at this day and time that would have happened.
Something else happened just shortly thereafter. People were in the dining room and we were talking, and someone said, “Meredith is here, Meredith is here,” and I looked out of the window, and there was Meredith, James Meredith and his wife getting off a little cart.
They came toward the building to come in the door. Something said, “Do something about it.” I ran to the door, and when he opened it, I had blocked the door with my body and my arms out to the side. He looked at me, and I said, “This time you have to come through me.”
And we had the biggest laugh from that, and it was something that relieved the tension of the years. I’m beginning to hear and read of people who are, they aren’t quite saying they’re sorry, but they’re on the verge of it. Maybe that’s, maybe that’s a start.
In Arlington cemetery in a couple of days there will be a ceremony commemorating Medgar and his work, and I am told that the governor of Mississippi will be present.
I don’t know whether he will say anything or not, but he will be present. So maybe there’s something that’s going on underground, and perhaps 50th anniversaries bring all of these things out for us to examine and to commit and recommit.
Tavis: As I mentioned earlier in this conversation, I’m catching a plane shortly after this conversation, I suspect, to head to Mississippi to meet you and so many other national dignitaries in Mississippi to commemorate, to celebrate, and to unveil this huge statue in honor of your husband.
I was asked to be the master of ceremonies, which I’m honored to do, and before committing to it I looked to see who was on the program. To your point, I saw that I’m introducing the governor that day and both United States senators from Mississippi – just a long list of dignitaries who will be in Mississippi on Thursday of this week for this unveiling of this statue.
I raise that to ask what you make of the progress, or lack thereof, made in our home state. You told the story of speaking at the University of Mississippi a moment ago, but just across the state what do you make of Mississippi these days?
Evers-Williams: Mississippi has grown in terms of reconciliation. I have hesitated in using that word, that term, but I rather embrace it now because I feel that we are much more honest in our move toward reconciliation and people being able to work together.
But we mustn’t fool ourselves. There is a more or less silent majority – a minority out there that still holds on to the hatred and the dishonesty between races.
All you have to do is to look back when President Obama was reelected and go to the University of Mississippi campus.
Some of the students rioted there because Obama was reelected. So you balance those things. Here is a reception that says we are really moving to do better, and there are still those who want things to remain the same.
I suspect, Tavis, that that’s going to continue, but hopefully we gain enough courage, and particularly with younger people, in learning their history and finding ways in which they can help us become a unit of Americans.
Tavis: Since you mentioned President Obama, I can only assume, and since I don’t want to assume I’m going to let you just tell me. But I’m assuming that you took Medgar to that podium with you when you were asked to give the invocation at the ceremony that we saw around the world in national television. But just take me back to that moment and tell me something about it.
Evers-Williams: Let me start very briefly with that was a dream come true for me. Almost 50 years ago, the March on Washington, just a couple of months after Medgar’s assassination, I was asked to be one of the few females to speak.
I think I was given maybe two minutes to say something. Unfortunately, I was in Boston attempting to get to Washington, D.C. to deliver those couple of minutes, and I could not get through the crowd. I got here and could not get through the crowd.
I said for the longest time, “My God, I lost out on such a marvelous occasion.” Little did I know that almost 50 years later the president of the United States would ask me to deliver the invocation.
As I stood there and I looked out over that mass of people, I felt no fear. I felt comfort. I felt a sense of dignity. I felt my grandmother standing there with me. When I said, “God make me a blessing,” that was my grandmother speaking.
When I spoke to the fact that there were men and women at Arlington cemetery just four miles from where I stood, that was my tribute to Medgar. I did not call his name, but that is where his body rests.
I don’t know how many people picked up on that, but enough did, and there has been conversation about that. I of course don’t expect to live another 50 years, but I hope with whatever time I have I’ll be able to contribute.
That as this 50th year anniversary has raised some negative feelings again, and I’m surprised that they have surfaced.
It’s also raised hope for a brighter tomorrow, and I see that with our young people, and I’m determined to do whatever I can to help us move forward in that area.
Tavis: You’ve said two or three things, as is often the case when I talk to you; you say two or three things that just I have to follow up on. So let me try to do this as quickly as I can, because I don’t want to forget what I want to ask right quick.
Number one, it’s an amazing story about the March on Washington, and 50 years later we’re still learning details that we did not know. So back to Thursday of this week. (Laughter)
On Thursday of this week, one of the persons who’ll be speaking at this unveiling is a guy named John Lewis. John Lewis, of course, son of the South, out of Alabama, worked with Dr. King.
Was in SNCC, has been a longtime congressman from Atlanta, Georgia, but he is the last living person to have spoken at the March on Washington. John Lewis, the last one living to have spoken at the March as we commemorate and celebrate that March 50 years ago come August of this year.
So Medgar is assassinated in the same year that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. You, to your earlier point, were asked to speak at that march. I did not know, I had forgotten, actually, that you had been asked, that you tried to make your way there, to your story, got caught up in the crowd, and did not get to the podium.
Here’s why that’s fascinating – because you would have been the only woman to have spoken at the March that day. The only woman to get to the podium was Mahalia Jackson because she was singing. (Laughter)
Tavis: But I’m fascinated now if you could tell me, if you can recall, what had you, what did you think you were going to say that day? Did you have notes prepared? What was your speech going to be that day?
Evers-Williams: No. No notes. Just from the heart.
Evers-Williams: It had been a couple of months since Medgar had been assassinated, and I have had a chance to look back over some of my notes and speeches, and I’m really surprised that I was able to be as thorough as I was, because I did not think that I was.
But let’s go back to the March itself. When there was dissention amongst the men –
Evers-Williams: – if I may –
Evers-Williams: – who were building this March, and it took Dorothy Height, bless her heart –
Tavis: That’s right.
Evers-Williams: – who is deceased now – who had to come in and tell them, “Sit and listen to me. We are not going to have this division amongst us, and women will be allowed to speak.”
She pulled, she – she, she, she – pulled that March together and kept it from being a total disaster. So women have played such an important role in achieving justice and equality, and we too have not received the respect and awards that I think we so rightly deserve.
Evers-Williams: So it’s a thing of building on the past, remembering that for me, of realizing that I’m human, and that I still have a degree of anger. The hatred is gone, but a degree of anger about what happened to Medgar, to our children, to other relatives, and the country as a whole.
But you cannot, one must not, wallow in pity, wallow in hatred, and give up on a society that I believe is still the best society in the world. Medgar believed in the country, and he said “That’s what I believe,” and I follow him in that.
Tavis: You make the case that you still believe this is if not the, certainly one of the greatest societies in the world. We have now entered into and passing through the era of Obama, and that raises all kinds of other questions and quandaries.
But what say you about the way, the best way for us to engage ourselves civically in this moment in the U.S. of A?
Evers-Williams: Oh, that’s a tough question, a very tough question, and I wish I had answers that I could give and feel that this is a guideline. That is one of the critical points that this institute will be exploring.
I don’t believe there’s any one particular answer. I want – I – want to see us be able to bring together generations, cross generational lines, of bringing in thinkers, and the thinkers don’t always have to be academic thinkers.
There are people in our small communities who may not express themselves as those with a high education, but they speak from the heart and they know their communities, and they have worked to find solutions.
We have to embrace that. I am not talking against computerization or whatnot, but where do we find the heart? Where do we find the feeling to go deep and deeper, where it hurts, and say, “These are things that we once, or that we must do.”
There’s no one answer. At least I don’t believe there’s any one answer. So what do we do? We explore, we study, we write, we disseminate that information, we bring people together.
If I may, my friend, programs like yours who helped get the issues out in the open. We may not all agree, but you put it there on the line, and people can’t forget you.
They can’t forget what you say, Tavis. They cannot forget your show. So you yourself are quite a blessing as we move forward in this world of hatred and anger, and as we seek peace and harmony.
Tavis: All right, I’m done. Get me some tissues right quick. (Laughter) I am always delighted and humbled and honored to have Myrlie Evers-Williams on this program.
I cannot – I can’t – I’ve yet to find a language to describe what it feels like to have been born in Mississippi and to have lived in the era of Myrlie Evers-Williams and to have gotten to know her, and to become a part of her family.
I just, again, one day, I’ll – one day, one day I will find a language to tell you what it means like to be a son of Mississippi and to have been in her company.
But for now, Myrlie Evers-Williams, I love you, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Evers-Williams: (Laughs) I embrace that, and I love you too.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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