RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the widow of a murdered Mississippi civil rights leader will help open the inaugural ceremony today. President Obama selected activist Myrlie Evers-Williams to deliver the invocation. She's the first woman and the first layperson to have the honor.
NPR's Debbie Elliott has this profile.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Evers-Williams' prominent role in President Obama's second inauguration comes in the 50th year since NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his family's home in Jackson, Mississippi.
On June 12, 1963, Myrlie Evers was inside watching TV with her three young children.
MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: And I recall that they said: There's daddy, there's daddy, they knew the sound of the car. And they were getting up off the floor - they were in the process of getting off from the floor to go to the front door to greet him and the sound of the bullet.
ELLIOTT: Evers found her husband at the bottom of the front stairs, keys still in his hand. He'd been shot in the back, targeted because of his work to register black voters and desegregate public institutions.
EVERS-WILLIAMS: Medgar became number one on the Mississippi to kill list.
ELLIOTT: It would be more than 30 years later before Myrlie Evers would see her husband's assassin brought to justice. She was in the courtroom when white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was convicted by a Mississippi jury and spoke to reporters after the verdict.
EVERS-WILLIAMS: I'm almost speechless with emotion. All I want to do is say, yeah, Medgar, yeah, yeah, yeah.
ELLIOTT: Evers-Williams met Medgar Evers just moments after she set foot as a freshman on the campus of Alcorn State University - the historically black Mississippi College where she is now a distinguished scholar in residence. She also serves on the advisory board of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, and has created the Medgar Evers Institute.
Former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a one-time segregationist, says she has served her home state well.
WILLIAM WINTER: Myrlie Evers had every reason to leave Mississippi, never to return. She has the right to be the bitterest person in America. It would be understandable if she hated all white folks. That was not what she chose to do.
ELLIOTT: Evers-Williams says she's trying to make sure young students understand the legacy of Medgar Evers and other civil rights martyrs. She fears history is not being passed on as it should be.
EVERS-WILLIAMS: My generation worked very hard to help America get to where it is in terms of race relations. I believe we became battle fatigued after giving and doing and dying and just all of that to move this country forward, then we said we'd done it.
ELLIOTT: Myrlie Evers worked alongside her husband as his secretary and top aide during his nearly 10-year tenure as the NAACP's lead organizer in Mississippi. After his murder, she left to raise her family in California and pursue a corporate career. But in 1995, she returned to the NAACP during a low point in the civil rights organizations' history, as it struggled financially and politically. She won a pivotal election as NAACP chairman by a single vote.
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ELLIOTT: After the vote, Evers-Williams promised a time of healing.
EVERS-WILLIAMS: Let us say to those who have laughed because we have been divided, try and get through to us now.
ELLIOTT: Civil rights leader Julian Bond succeeded Evers-Williams as NAACP chair. Bond says being the first woman and layperson to give the opening prayer at a presidential inauguration is a crowning first for Evers-Williams, and a crowning achievement for all civil rights activists, on a day that also honors Martin Luther King, Jr.
JULIAN BOND: For everybody in the movement, seeing Myrlie Evers up there on that stage with Barack Obama will be just the culmination of some of the work we did and the knowledge for all of us that it was not at all in vain.
ELLIOTT: Evers-Williams calls it an exhilarating experience to represent the civil rights era by offering the invocation at President Obama's inauguration.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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