Myrlie Evers-Williams' departure ends a long chapter in U.S. civil rights history
WASHINGTON — Civil-rights stalwart Myrlie Evers-Williams will formally step down from the board of the NAACP this week — more than 60 years after she first joined the group as the young wife of a rising activist named Medgar Evers.
Evers-Williams, 80, may be best known as the widow of Evers, the NAACP Mississippi field secretary gunned down in 1963 by a white supremacist in the driveway of the Jackson, Miss., home he shared with Myrlie and their three small children.
In the years since, however, she moved past the image of a grieving civil rights widow to emerge as a leading activist in her own right — writing books and fighting for more than three decades to bring her husband's killer to justice. In his third trial for the crime, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 of the murder. (He died in prison in 2001.)
A year after the conviction, Evers-Williams opened a new chapter — stepping into the high-profile post of chairman of the NAACP, then tarnished by scandal and mired in debt. She is credited with helping fix the finances of the nation's oldest civil rights organization during her three years at the helm.
Last year, as the 50th anniversary of the Evers' assassination approached, she set another milestone — becoming the first woman and first layperson to deliver the invocation at the swearing-in of an American president when she took the stage at President Obama's second inauguration.
Evers-Williams said she will remain active in the NAACP but has relinquished her board seat in the hopes that someone "youthful in mind, spirit and perhaps body" will take her place. "It's critically important that we develop our young adults." She officially leaves the post Saturday when board elections are held during the organization's annual meeting in New York.
The NAACP, founded in 1909, remains as relevant and as needed as ever, she said, pointing to a slew of new restrictive voting laws around the country as a challenge the next generation of civil rights activists must confront. Proponents of new laws requiring identification at polling places maintain the measures are necessary to prevent voter fraud. Opponents say they disproportionately punish poor and minority residents, who are less likely to have the forms of identification now required in several states.
"If you look at the landscape, it's almost a review of things that things my generation went through in the '50s and '60s," Evers-Williams said.
The nation, of course, has changed dramatically since her early days of activism in Mississippi at her husband's side when his push to register black voters, his boycott campaign against white merchants with segregated restrooms and efforts to integrate the University of Mississippi made the family targets.
"Fear may not be a constant companion any longer, but some of the same deep-seated feelings of prejudice and racism still exist in America today," she said.
The NAACP's current leader Roslyn Brock said Evers-Williams "stood tall during some of the darkest days of the NAACP and made it through to the other side with grace and poise."
Brock became the youngest person to lead the organization when she was elected to her post in 2010 at age 44. Evers-Williams was an early mentor. Among her advice: Never relinquish the gavel no matter how long or contentious the meeting, Brock said, (During her tenure, Evers-Williams once kept the board in session for 11 straight hours until it worked through its agenda.)
Like Evers-Williams, Brock also was widowed at age 30 when her husband died of a blood clot. Brock said Evers-Williams was her "rock" through her grief.
In the aftermath of Evers' killing, the young mother moved her family to southern California, earned a degree in sociology from Pomona College and held corporate jobs in advertising and community affairs. She made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1970. In 1987, then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley named her to the city's public works board.
She is sorting through "storage units full of materials" to write a yet-to-be-named memoir that will chronicle her life, her work with the NAACP and her years with her second husband, labor activist and longshoreman Walter Williams. Her husband implored a reluctant Evers-Williams to travel across the country to stand for the NAACP's top post in 1995 — even as he was dying of cancer at their home in Bend, Ore.
He and others viewed her as the best candidate to bring a new direction to a 64-member board torn by infighting, she said. "Walter said, 'You must run, and you must win. You come back with victory,'" she recalled. It was their last conversation.
She won the race by one vote. Within three hours of her returning home, Walter Williams died.
In some ways, her work at the NAACP was guided by twin forces, Evers-Williams said: "The spirit of Medgar Evers, who had given his life for the cause and … my husband, Walter Williams, who sacrificed my being with him in his last days and hours."
These days, she spends most of her time in Lorman, Miss., where she is a "distinguished scholar-in-residence" at Alcorn State University, the historically black college where she and Evers met. She remains active in an array of organizations, including the Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson.
She also has found time for some fun in recent years. In December 2012, Evers-Williams, who began studying piano at age 4, performed at Carnegie Hall with the pop orchestra Pink Martini — fulfilling a long-held dream of her grandmother who raised her in Vicksburg, Miss.
"I was able to say, 'Momma, this is for you.' "