Myrlie Evers-Williams gives the invocation as U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden look on during the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
NBC NEWS (theGrio.com) by Blair L. M. Kelley
Perhaps it seems that President Barack Obama is simply honoring the fifty-year anniversary of the death of Medgar Evers - with no greater symbolism implied - by inviting his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration for his second term in office. After all, many people believe that in the age of Obama, the problems of civil rights are in the past and we have entered a post-racial America.
However the election this past fall, with attempts to repress African-Americans, Latinos, and the poor with restrictive voter ID laws, shortened access to early voting, and limited access to the polls, reminded many of the fight for voting rights waged in the 1960s. In this moment, Medgar and Myrlie Evers' story needs to be retold. Their lives remind us of how far America has come in the past half century, while cautioning us to protect those gains.
By recalling Ms. Evers-Williams' journey to that podium, we recall our own journey as a nation.
Medgar and Myrlie Evers grew up in a state that did not recognize them as full citizens. Both were Mississippi born and raised in loving homes, yet they both learned at an early age that their lives would be devalued by the larger society.
Young Myrlie Beasley was shielded from most of the racial horrors around her; raised by her grandmother's strict hand and her aunt's encouragement. But she lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where society in the 1940s and 50s was strictly divided by race. In her autobiography she recalled the department store where black customers were barred from trying on clothes and had to line shoes and hats with paper to check their fit. She remembered the humiliation of segregated buses where black passengers were herded into the back behind "wire fencing" - leaving black passengers "crowded together like chickens in a coop."
She recalled being terrorized by a small mob of white boys on her three-mile walk home from the junior high provided for black children; and she recalled organizing resistance to their taunts. She saw the world around her but never believed that she was really "less than."
Growing up in rural Decatur, Mississippi, Medgar learned the hard lessons of race from his father, who tried not to bend in the face of humiliation.
The senior Evers didn't make stepping off of sidewalks for passing whites a habit, even when local whites expected it. And he resisted being cheated by local whites after a conflict at the general store, fighting back against their threats of violence.
However, the violence that undergirded white supremacy could not be avoided. Medgar was just 14 when Willie Tingle, a resident of Evers' hometown of Decatur, Mississippi was accused of insulting a white woman, and then dragged through the town, down the road in front of the Evers home, hung by a tree and then shot hundreds of times by a mob of angry white men. Young Medgar would see Tingle's clothes, left behind as a bloodstained reminder by the mob, as he went hunting in the fields near his home. Yet Evers spirit of resistance was not dampened.
Medgar would go on to volunteer to serve his country in World War II, fighting for democracy abroad, though as a black veteran, he would be denied his citizenship rights in his own state.
Evers, along with his brother Charles and a group of black veterans registered to vote in 1946. Prior to their registration, no black men or women were registered in Decatur. From that day forward, threats came nightly, warning that they should not go to the courthouse on Election Day. Evers and the other vets did return to cast their ballots. Incensed at this direct challenge to white supremacy, a mob of local white men organized to stop them. Evers recalled that the men who forced him out of the courthouse at gunpoint were people that he knew: " some fifteen or twenty armed white men...men I had grown up with, had played with." The black veterans did not vote that day. But despite this defeat, Evers, like many men of his generation, was determined to change his beloved state and bring democracy to Mississippi too.
In spite of the risks, Evers pushed the limits proscribed by race. He used the GI Bill to complete his education; meeting his future wife Myrlie on the campus of Alcorn A&M Colllege. The couple wed in 1951, just a few years before the movement for civil rights would reignite throughout the South. The young couple would be at the heart of that struggle.
After graduation, the couple moved to the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. As Medgar Evers worked selling insurance for the black owned Magnolia Mutual Insurance Company, traveling through the Delta, visiting the homes of African American sharecroppers, he learned more and more about the bleak conditions of Mississippi's working poor. On a land that was rich, black families squeaked by on just pennies a day while landowners prospered, pocketing federal farm subsidies and cheating their workers. It was this racial and economic injustice that pushed Evers toward leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, working to recruit new members and start new chapters throughout the state. He believed that organizing a grassroots movement would be the only way to change Mississippi.
When Medgar and Myrlie Evers moved to Jackson, Mississippi to work full time for the NAACP - he serving as the first state field secretary in Mississippi, and she working as secretary for the field office - they gave themselves over to the movement.
Medgar Evers worked to organize voter registration drives, and recruit new NAACP members among working class black men and women throughout the state. He would also be called to do the dangerous work of investigating incidences of racial violence. Under Evers' leadership, NAACP membership in the state nearly doubled, even as the newly founded White Citizens Council tried to repress the organization, making NAACP membership illegal, and attempted to target and destroy its members; and as racial violence targeted black leadership throughout the state. As Myrlie recounted in her autobiography, it was sometimes a struggle to be married in the face of the stress and terror of the movement.
In 1960 the Mississippi movement won a clear political victory when James Meredith became the first black man admitted to the University of Mississippi. It was an important personal victory for Evers, who had applied to their law school and been rejected on a bogus technicality in 1954. However, the victory accelerated the threats against the Evers family. It was in this climate of great change and frightening repression, that Medgar Evers was shot down on June 12, 1963, just steps from his front door.
In the year after his death, the struggle in Mississippi would bear fruit as the Freedom Summer of 1964 began. It would be Mississippians who would demonstrate the horrors of violent disfranchisement to the nation, and move the country toward the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within a decade of Medgar Evers' murder, courthouses across Mississippi were finally forced to add black voters to their rolls, and black ballots could finally be cast on election days.
Myrlie Evers recalled being filled with rage in the wake of her husband's murder, but she remained determined to continue fighting for their cause. Myrlie Evers channeled her anger into the movement, working tirelessly in the effort to make sure that his death was not in vain, fighting to see that his murderer was convicted and imprisoned.
Evers' killer was heralded as a hero in among many in white Mississippi in 1963, supported by the White Citizens' Council and visited during the trial by Mississippi's governor, Ross Barnett. The sham trials held in the 1960s ended in hung juries.
Even as her grief nearly overwhelmed her, Myrlie Evers found her equilibrium by moving out of Mississippi in order to raise her children in relative safety. She remarried, but she never stopped seeking justice for her late husband. Because of Myrlie Evers-Williams' determination, Medgar Evers murderer was eventually convicted in 1994 after thirty years. After the trial Evers-Williams continued to fight to protect Medgar's legacy by serving as chairperson of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998, steering the organization toward greater stability and visibility as it moved toward a new century.
Reflecting on her husband after the conviction, Myrlie Evers-Williams suggested, "perhaps he did more in death than he could have in life. I think he is still among us."
So it is fitting in this moment, when thousands waited in lines for hours, when activists battled unfair voting rules in courts from Pennsylvania to Ohio, when people of color, and young women and men voted in record numbers, that Myrlie Evers-Williams should speak and her late husband should be remembered. He is indeed still among us.