50 Years Of Remembering Medgar Evers, His Widow Reflects

Fifty years ago, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Mississippi. Host Michel Martin speaks with his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, about how she remembers him and keeps his legacy alive today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We start the program today with a memory. Fifty years ago today, a few minutes after midnight, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi by a white segregationist who wanted to stop Evers' work as a field organizer for the NAACP. He was just 37 years old, a war veteran, a husband, and a father of three. Evers had put his life on the line to register voters. Here he is a month before his murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEDGAR EVERS: This demonstration will continue. We will have a mass meeting tonight, and after the mass meeting, we will be demonstrating even further on tomorrow. So then, this will only give us an impetus to move ahead rather than to slow down. We intend to completely eradicate Jim Crow here in Jackson, Mississippi.

MARTIN: Medgar Evers' death was a tragedy but also a turning point in this country's long battle for equal opportunity and justice. At his side, at the end, as throughout, was his wife Myrlie. Myrlie went on to raise the children left fatherless by his death, fought to see her husband's killer brought to justice, and became a significant leader in her own right - as chair of the NAACP in the 1990s. You might also remember, she delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama's second inauguration earlier this year. Myrlie Evers-Williams and her family are in Jackson today to commemorate Medgar Evers' death and life, and she's with us now. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at such a busy time.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: Oh, it's indeed my pleasure.

MARTIN: How is it for you to recall these events? It can't be easy.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: No, no, it is not. And let me say this, that the events stay with you, regardless of the year or the time, they are there. You work through them, you suppress them, you put them away, and now here I am. Surprisingly so, to me, reliving all of these things and it's good because people remember. Young people who did not know about that period of time are very curious about it. And I certainly have worked very hard over these years to be sure that Medgar was remembered.

I really am surprised that I'm beginning to feel a little emotional about it because I have fought emotion and replaced emotion with doing things that were positive to help people remember Medgar and others whose names we don't use that often or recall that often. So it's kind of strange, it really is.

MARTIN: We talked after President Obama was first elected. You mentioned that you still had with you the poll tax receipt...

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...that your husband had had in his pocket, with his blood on it.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: It's true. I do.

MARTIN: And I wonder, did you ever feel kind of caught between wanting to remember so that others will remember and wanting to forget yourself?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Never wanting to forget, but working hard to be sure that others remembered. Medgar gave so freely of himself and, for many years, his name was very seldom, if ever, mentioned with other civil rights leaders. I found that an unbearable pain because he was one of the first and gave so freely and who wanted nothing for himself in all of this. It was just that his beliefs were that deep. And I was determined to be sure that in some way, positive way or ways, that Medgar would be remembered.

And after 50 years of working and securing justice in his murder, building my own careers and taking care of my children and whatnot, life was just been busy, and in the background was this knowing thing of you've got to do more and you've got to do more to be sure that this man is remembered. So here we are, at this day and time, and I feel relieved that people in America and around the world, for that matter, know who Medgar Evers is.

MARTIN: One reason, though, you had to keep working was that - that it took a very long time for his killer to be brought to justice.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Ah.

MARTIN: I mean the man who shot him...

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Thirty years.

MARTIN: Byron De La Beckwith, he was an avowed white supremacist. He was tried but the jury deadlocked, and then 30 years later, after a new investigation, he was finally found guilty. I wonder, did you believe that day would come?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: I knew it would. It had to. I had promised Medgar, if just a couple of nights or so before he was killed, that if anything happened to him and I survived, I would be sure that justice would be served. And I don't make many promises, nor do I break them, and it became a passion of mine. So how do you juggle the needs of answering the past and moving through the future while you live as normal a life as you possibly can while rearing three children? It's not easy, but I have been blessed to have friends, you know, my children, supporters here and there. So I don't know, a psychiatrist might say I have a split personality. But whatever, it has worked to serve my needs and I believe the needs of America as a whole.

MARTIN: What has it taken for you to emerge whole from this? I mean, there are a lot of people who suffer a loss who never get over it. And I know that you said that, you know, it's always with you but one of the things that I think people admire about you is that you did go on to have a full life. I mean, you ran for Congress yourself, you had a career, you finished your education, you raised your children, as we said, you remarried.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: That was healthy.

MARTIN: Yeah, what can people draw from your own experience, you think, of how you learned to recover from this?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, it's basically accepting the fact that life does go on. And it is left up to each individual as to what kind of life you have. I'm not one to give up easily, and I know Medgar would have wanted me to pursue those things that I did, and he often told me that I was stronger than I thought I was. So, you know, there you are, you don't - I don't believe in sitting in a corner and being, oh woe is me. You get up, you get up and you find challenges and you move forward. And that's what I've done with my life and I'm very blessed to have been able to do that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Myrlie Evers-Williams. She's the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He was killed outside their home in Mississippi, 50 years ago today. Voting rights were such a significant part of Mr. Evers' life and work, and also your life and work. There is a major case before the Supreme Court relating to voting rights, and one of their main questions in this case is whether certain areas of the country still should have federal oversight. I don't know whether you have an opinion about this, but if you do, I would be interested to know.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: The answer is yes. I will be up front about that. There are, yes, certain places in this country. But why are we being specific about certain ones when we find prejudice and racism at the polls anywhere you look in this country? Other states will deny that, but if you look at the subtlety of it now, the subtlety of ways of keeping people from registering and voting, it's no longer how many bubbles in the bar of soap or how many peas in the jar, it's more subtle in the sense that you have to have certain IDs now, that you have to have certain clearances, to even keeping people waiting for hours in the line to vote. And that is not the way it should be in America.

MARTIN: Do you remember this? He was speaking at an NAACP gathering about a week before he died and he was quoted as saying, I love my children and I love my wife and I would die, and die gladly, if that would make a better life for them. It's kind of chilling to hear those words. I don't remember if he ever said that to you, you know, directly, but in the years since then...

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. Many times.

MARTIN: Did you feel that his sacrifice was worth it? Really, all of your sacrifice, 'cause all of you had to live with the loss.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, I do. I do feel that. I did not initially. I think I did, but I could not accept it at the time that he was alive. But looking back, Medgar felt so strongly about justice and equality and the role that he could play. And he knew that his life was on the line and he still continued to do that. I did not always support it, but I came to support his needs, his wishes. I'm just pleased and proud to have known him, to have been his wife and the mother of his children. So I asked for strength, I asked for blessings, and I have been fortunate. I received both.

MARTIN: You mentioned earlier, there have been a number of tributes to mark this important moment. I'll just play a short clip of President Clinton speaking at Arlington National Cemetery last week, where your husband is buried.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Medgar Evers just came home from the war and said, hey, I want to vote. I want to have a say in the affairs of my community. I want all people to be treated like they're the same, and it turns out that we are.

MARTIN: Of all of the tributes that have been planned and are being delivered in memory of your husband, is there any one in particular that's particularly meaningful to you?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes, and it's a very private one. Our younger son, Van, was at Arlington Cemetery and there was a private gathering at Medgar's gravesite, and he became a little emotional, but he looked at me and he embraced me and he said, mom, that was my dad. That moved me more than anything else, but to have President Clinton, all of these other people, Mississippi, from around the world - all of these wonderful things that are happening are just so rewarding to me. To fly into Jackson, Mississippi, to the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers Airport is so important. To have young people discuss him and determine what they can do based on Medgar's life, it - the beat goes on, as they say. And I'm so pleased to have been a part in seeing that happen.

MARTIN: Myrlie Evers-Williams is the former chair of the NAACP. She is, as we know, the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. He was killed 50 years today, and we found her in Jackson, Mississippi, where she is attending many commemorative events. Myrlie Evers-Williams, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for your own work.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: It has been my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: Coming up, warmer weather often means that women like to take off a layer or two to beat the heat, but too many then read that as an invitation to critique.

ROCHELLE KEYHAN: He kept saying things like, don't worry, I don't bite, why aren't you going to talk to me? I can bite if you want to.

MARTIN: Our Beauty Shop ladies talk about the growing movement to stop street harassers. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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