Monday, October 26, 2009

Husband's Death Turns Evers-Williams Into Champion Of Social Justice.

United Press International files
Medgar Evers' daughter Reena Denise (left), brother Charles Evers and wife Myrlie Evers mourn the slain civil rights hero in 1963. Myrlie Evers-Williams will receive the National Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum on Tuesday.

Husband's Death Turns Evers-Williams Into Champion Of Social Justice
Originally Appeared @ The Following Link:

By Michael Lollar
The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Seedling In A Forest Of Giant Sequoias:
The Great Myrlie Evers-Williams (Widow Of The Great Medgar Evers) And Legendary Businessman & Founder Of Black Enterprise Magazine Earl Graves Are Fans Of The Art Of R2C2H2 Tha Artivist

Myrlie Beasley, a freshman from Vicksburg, was leaning against a light post at the old Alcorn A&M College in Mississippi when a football player walked up and told her, "I suggest you not lean on that pole. You may get shocked."

Beasley was majoring in education with a focus on music. She played piano, and her grandmother and an aunt who raised her had dreams of her debut at Carnegie Hall. They warned her about older boys, especially worldly war veterans.

Beasley was wary, but also vulnerable. Her admirer, Medgar Evers, was persistent.

"He would stand outside when I took piano practice. He professed to love classical music. He didn't," she says.

He was president of the junior class, yearbook editor, a football player and an Army veteran eight years older than her.

"He was cool," she says.

And, soon enough, she was shocked. The prim young girl who had grown up in a family of teachers was about to marry a man who would challenge everything about the social order in Mississippi. It was her introduction in 1951 to a world of civil rights activism that eventually would lead Myrlie Beasley to a National Freedom Award as Myrlie Evers-Williams, former national chairwoman of the NAACP.

Evers-Williams will receive the award Tuesday from the National Civil Rights Museum at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ. In the same ceremony, basketball superstar Julius "Dr. J." Erving will receive the museum's annual Legacy Award for his humanitarian, business and philanthropic works.

Museum chairman Benjamin L. Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP, says Evers-Williams, a board member, was persuaded to run for chairwoman although there was no financial compensation.

"She did it all and did it well. She's an amazing person," he says.

Her successor, Julian Bond, describes her as "a gracious lady with nerves of steel. She literally saved the NAACP when it was at one of its lowest ebbs."

Evers-Williams, 76, was "absolutely not" an activist when she met her first husband. Her family did not believe in "rocking the boat. We were told ... we had to do better than anyone else because it was difficult for us as a race to move into good-paying jobs."

Medgar Evers was organizing people to vote and demonstrate for equal rights. He told young Myrlie Beasley: "You're going to be the mother of my children."

As Myrlie Evers, she would leave school before graduating to move to Mound Bayou, Miss. There, Medgar Evers worked as an insurance agent and Myrlie Evers was an IBM punch-card operator for the same insurance agency.

He sold policies to plantation sharecroppers, "and he secretly talked to them about the need to register and vote," she says.

"I began ... to have an open mind," she says. "But that open mind was all but filled up with fear. You were not born and reared in Mississippi and challenging the system without knowing you were putting your life on the line."

When her husband was offered the job of NAACP field secretary for the state, it meant moving to Jackson.

"I was glad he took it because I wanted to get out of that hot, dusty Delta. I was a city girl. I went along as his secretary. I was his wife. I was the greeter at the airport. I was the good wife," she says.

They were married for 111/2 years and had three children. He often told her she was stronger than she thought. It took all of her strength when their home was firebombed in 1962 after Medgar organized a boycott of white merchants.

A year later, President John F. Kennedy angered segregationists by proposing new civil rights laws. Myrlie and the children stayed up to listen to Kennedy's speech while Medgar worked late.

They were awake at 12:30 a.m.

"The children were on the floor. I was stretched across the bed. The car pulled into the driveway. A shot exploded," she recalls.

The children grabbed their baby brother and did as their father had told them. They ran to the bathroom and got into the tub.

"I made a dash to the front door, unlocked the door and turned on the light," says Evers-Williams.

The bullet from a deer rifle had struck Medgar in the back, knocking him forward more than a car length. He crawled a few inches toward the door.

"I screamed and the kids came running," she says. "I remember hearing them say, 'Daddy, get up. Daddy, get up.'"

The killer left a gun with fingerprints on the rifle scope. Charged with murder, segregationist fertilizer salesman Byron De La Beckwith was freed twice when all-white juries deadlocked.

Evers-Williams had never wanted to be anything "but a wife and mother," she says. But at a rally the night after the murder, people began to chant, "No more fear." For them and for her, she says, "it was a turning point."

Evers was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I began to tour the country on behalf of the NAACP and raise money for the organization," she says.

Evers-Williams enrolled at Pomona College in California, studying sociology while working weekends for the NAACP. She co-wrote a book, "For Us, the Living," and in 1975 married longshoreman Walter Williams, a civil rights activist who filed a lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring among West Coast shippers.

Evers-Williams would be appointed to the five-member Board of Public Works in Los Angeles. She worked as a contributing editor for Ladies Home Journal, director of planning and development for Clarement College, vice president of a spa and cosmetics company and director of consumer affairs for Atlantic Richfield Co.

In 1995, she ran for chairwoman of the NAACP, which was in debt more than $4 million and had developed a reputation as, what she calls, "financially and morally corrupt." She won and approached the NAACP like a business, raising $3 million by holding a chairman inauguration ceremony. She held a TV-radio campaign to solicit funds and relied heavily on local NAACP chapters to raise money.

"Those three years almost killed me," she says. "I never worked so hard in my life."

Williams died just after she had taken office, but it was during her tenure that she celebrated one of her biggest victories. Evers-Williams had promised Medgar Evers that if he were ever murdered she would "see to it that justice prevailed. I never gave up."

She finally convinced the state to retry De La Beckwith based on evidence he had tampered with the juries that deadlocked on his previous trials.

"I was told that Beckwith was an old man by then and that he should be let alone and that God would take care of it," she says.

She persisted. He was convicted in 1994 at age 73 and died in prison in 2001.

"This is the one thing that I claim for myself -- my own victory," she says. "It ended up being not just a victory for myself, but for a lot of people. When that verdict was read, for the first time in my life I felt free."

Freedom Awards

What: National Civil Rights Museum's 2009 Freedom Awards

Where: Public forum, Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ; Freedom Award banquet, main ballroom Memphis Cook Convention Center

When: Public forum at 10 a.m. Tuesday; Award ceremony and banquet follows at 6:30 p.m.

Admission: Public forum is free. Ticket sales for the banquet closed Friday, but tickets costing $35 per person may be bought at the ticket office of the museum through 5 p.m. today for a postawards performance by Eddie Levert, lead singer of the O'Jays.

More information: Call 901-526-1813 or visit

-- Michael Lollar: 901-529-2793

Contact An American Civil Rights Veteran Today:

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