60 years after Medgar Evers’ murder, his widow continues a civil rights legacy

Jun 11, 2023, 9:02 PM | Updated: Jun 12, 2023, 2:22 pm

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — At 90, Myrlie Evers-Williams still speaks in a clear, strong voice as she says she terribly misses her first love, civil rights icon Medgar Evers, and as she reflects on his work — and her own — to push the U.S. toward a promise of equality and justice for all.

It’s been 60 years since a white supremacist hid in the darkness of night and assassinated Evers outside the family’s Jackson home, shooting the Mississippi NAACP leader hours after then-President John F. Kennedy gave a televised speech advocating civil rights legislation.

Evers-Williams and the couple’s three young children were in the house. After hearing the crack of a rifle, she rushed to her mortally wounded husband, who lay bleeding in the carport.

“Medgar is so very much a part of me, and he’s here,” Evers-Williams told about 200 people who gathered on a hot and humid morning last week for the ceremonial opening of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service.

The monument is in a subdivision where people still raise families in modest two- and three-bedroom homes. A large bouquet of red roses and daisies stood in the carport Monday at the Evers home, which is open for tours by appointment. No appointment is needed at the new visitors’ space nearby, which has a herb and vegetable garden.

Evers was a World War II veteran who fought in Europe and then faced the hostile realities of a deeply segregated society after returning home to Mississippi. As the first field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP beginning in 1954, he led voter registration drives and boycotts to push for racial equality. He also investigated lynchings, beatings and other violence that Black residents suffered at the hands of white segregationists. His wife worked alongside him as his secretary.

“When my husband was shot at the doorstep of our home — June 12, 1963 — I thought my life was over,” Evers-Williams said. “And I realized it was just beginning because there were three children — Medgar’s children, my children — who were looking up to me.”

Mississippi’s white power structure in the early 1960s prevented most Black people from registering to vote, and most public schools remained segregated until 1970.

Evers-Williams said her home state needed to overcome division and “show the rest of this nation that Mississippi was not at the bottom of the heap, but that we could rise to be what we should be.” She and the children moved to California in 1964, and she raised them there.

In 1976, she married Walter Williams, a longshoreman and union activist.

“God was very good and sent another man in my life — a man who loved and appreciated Medgar,” she said.

White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith stood trial twice in the 1960s in the killing of Evers, but all-white juries deadlocked. Prosecutors reopened the case in the early 1990s after new witnesses came forward. In 1994, an integrated jury convicted Beckwith of murder and sentenced him to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

Evers-Williams said Evers never wanted to give up on Mississippi, even when he knew he was in danger. He “gave his life so it could be better for all of us,” she said.

During last week’s ceremony at the Evers home, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the family’s work is honorable.

“I want you to recognize the humanity here,” Lumumba told the crowd. “The humanity of a family that has given it all. The humanity of a family that did not allow a coward’s bullet to stop them.”

Evers-Williams has been a civil rights activist in her own right. She served as national chairperson of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998, winning the position within days of when Williams died of cancer. In 2013, she delivered the invocation during then-President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

The airport and the main post office in Jackson have both been named for Evers for many years, and a statue of him stands at a busy intersection.

About 38% of Mississippi residents are Black — the largest percentage of any U.S. state. In the six decades since Evers was murdered and the federal government enacted voting rights legislation, Black voter registration in Mississippi has increased dramatically. Black people have won hundreds of local offices and dozens of Mississippi legislative seats but no statewide offices. Among the state’s four U.S. House members, one is Black.

In the past week, several events have been held in and around Jackson to commemorate the Evers family legacy. Young people attended seminars about human rights activism. A Voices of Courage and Justice gala honored people committed to social change.

At a “More Than a Widow” brunch for Evers-Williams, a gospel choir sang: “What do you do when you’ve done all you can? … God has a purpose. Yes, God has a plan.”

Evers-Williams’ daughter Reena Evers-Everette accompanied her to the events. She said it’s important for people to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, even as politicians try to restrict how history is taught.

“We are trying to … make sure our history is never erased,” Evers-Everette said.

She said the commemorative events are likely to be her mother’s final big public appearances. After moving from California to Oregon and back to Mississippi, Evers-Williams is living in California again.

Evers-Williams, who spoke at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in 2017, said last week that she is proud of her native state — something she could not always say.

“I haven’t said it’s perfect or even near perfect,” she said. “But it’s changed so much since my birth, and I hope it continues to do so in a very positive way.”

She chuckled as she mentioned being 90, and then said she remains committed to trying to eliminate racism and prejudice: “I hope I will be able to do so until I take my last breath.”

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60 years after Medgar Evers’ murder, his widow continues a civil rights legacy