June 10, 2003
I recently returned to my home in Bend, Ore., from Jackson, Miss., the national headquarters of the Medgar Evers Institute. I was weary from my travels. My mouth opened, and I said aloud, "Medgar, 50 years is long enough. I'm tired, but your contributions must not be forgotten."
I shocked myself with that statement. June 12 marks the 40th anniversary of Medgar's assassination. I had said 50 years, because during the 10 years prior to that we had been so actively engaged in the civil-rights movement. This was at a time when civil rights was not considered sexy. It was not the "in" thing, and I felt that Medgar stood very much alone as a pioneer with the NAACP in Mississippi.
Medgar was always prodding me, "Myrlie, you must learn to take care of yourself, for I will not always be here to do that for you."
I promised him that if anything happened to him, I would see to it that justice was done. It took 30-plus years for his murderer to be convicted, but justice was finally served. Eighteen other civil-rights cases were opened after that because of this success.
The answer to my public cry immediately after Medgar's assassination was, "Don't let his life and death be in vain." Today, I know without a doubt that his efforts were not in vain.
I remember the days when we could not register and vote, when our lives were threatened, our jobs and our homes could be taken away from us. And I remember the questionnaire we were assigned that asked you to interpret a section of the Constitution. If your interpretation was not to the satisfaction of that clerk, who might have had a seventh-grade education while you had a master's degree, you would fail. I remember the jar of beans that we were to give an accurate count or fail. We were asked how many bubbles were in a bar of soap. Today, Mississippi enjoys the reputation of having among the largest number of black elected officials in the nation.
Medgar also fought to integrate the public schools and filed a lawsuit, Darrell Kenyatta Evers vs. the state Mississippi. The integrated schools produced people who learned together and now own joint ventures. Many credit Medgar's work and vision for these successes.
There is great controversy about affirmative action today. And I shudder to think how that term has become so misconstrued, how we've lost sight of what it was intended to do and the benefits it has brought.
Thanks to affirmative action, we have many successful African-American entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors and leaders in all sectors of America. Women of all races have been beneficiaries. Gratifying, yes!
Sadly, too many young adults say, "I have made it on my own. I have done it by myself." I remind them that no one makes it by oneself.
I vividly remember Medgar saying to me, "I'm going to make you into the woman I want you to be." How I disliked that! But I did learn many lessons from him. And I was able to develop a life of my own, always known as "the widow of," respecting and cherishing that, but crying out along the way, "I am my own person." I returned to college, earned my degree, entered the corporate world, wrote two books, became a contributing editor for Ladies' Home Journal, ran for Congress in 1970. He even gave me the freedom to find love again and remarry.
That is what Medgar provided for so many people he touched: a sense of dignity, a sense of purpose, determination and perseverance.
Medgar believed in developing young people to be future leaders. I, too, am committed to that through the Medgar Evers Institute. It has a three-pronged purpose: youth leadership, education and reconciliation, aided by his papers that reside at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The work continues. It remains for us to be vigilant to protect the gains that Medgar and others paid the ultimate price for. Those of us who believe in justice and equality cannot allow these gains to gradually disappear.
I asked Medgar on occasion, "Why you?" And he said, "If not me, who?"
It's a question we all need to ask ourselves.
Myrlie Evers-Williams is the widow of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated on June 12, 1963, in Mississippi. She was chairman of the board of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998, and is the founder of the Medgar Evers Institute, based in Jackson, Miss. She is the author of "Watch Me Fly" (Little Brown, 1999) and "For Us, the Living," (Doubleday, 1996).