Youth Asked To Follow In Medgar Evers' Footsteps

Former President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries spoke at a memorial service for slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers on Wednesday morning. Evers was killed 50 years ago this month.

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Former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder were among those who gathered today to remember civil rights icon Medgar Evers. The ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery where Evers is buried. Evers was assassinated 50 years ago this month. His widow, civil rights leader in her own right, asked people to do what they can to build on his life. NPR's Allison Keyes was there.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Under a bright sky with wispy clouds, Myrlie Evers Williams was presented with a U.S. flag and with a memorial flag of the NAACP. It's the organization her husband died for working as its first field officer in Mississippi.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Medgar was a man who never wanted adoration, who never wanted to be in the limelight. He was a man who saw a job that needed to be done, and he answered the call.

KEYES: Evers-Williams talked about the night of June 12, 1963, when her husband was killed in his own driveway. The images are forever burned into her and into the hearts of her children.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: The sound of that rifle of seeing their father sprawled out at the doorstep with his keys in his hands.

KEYES: She says she recently saw the rifle that killed her husband in an exhibition, and it filled her with anguish but also gave her a vision of what her husband's sacrifice meant for everyone.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: I saw the flash of the fire from that bullet being fired, and what did I see - and I thank God for that - that fire represented freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: Before Medgar Evers organized voter registration and led dangerous investigations into the murder of Emmett Till, he served two and half years in the then-segregated U.S. Army during World War II. In France, whites treated him like a full human being. Then Evers went home to his beloved Mississippi, a state riddled with racism.

Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker.

SENATOR ROGER WICKER: The racial segregation policies to which young Sergeant Evers returned were wrong. They were ugly, and they were destructive to both whites and blacks.

KEYES: But Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant says his state is different now.

GOVERNOR PHIL BRYANT: Our world has been changed by that sacrifice. Today, Mississippi stands together with determination to create a brighter future for all its people.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The next time you hear people complaining around Washington about what a rough business democracy is, we might do well to remember what it was like 50 years ago.

KEYES: President Bill Clinton told the audience that the meaning of Medgar Evers' life and death is that he embraced the struggle. He also says he's elated that there are so many monuments to Evers, including an airport that bears his name in Jackson, Mississippi, and a college named for him in New York. Clinton told the crowd to remember...

CLINTON: It is easy to be for yesterday's change. It is quite another to make the change your own time requires.

KEYES: Myrlie Evers-Williams says that the naming of a U.S. Navy supply ship after her husband speaks to the level of change in this nation since his death, but Da'Quan Love, president of Virginia's youth and college division of the NAACP, reminded the crowd that young people are ready to follow in Medgar Evers' footsteps.

DA'QUAN LOVE: Medgar is gone. Martin is gone. Malcolm is gone. But the work yet remains.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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