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Former NAACP Chair Myrlie Evers-Williams Faces Racial Unrest Head-On

Widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers on how America can reach its promise of freedom, equality

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James Van Evers

What was your reaction to the killing of George Floyd?

My reaction was horror, deep sadness. This man lost his life in a manner that says to me that America, the land of my birth, has not changed that much since my husband, Medgar Evers, was shot down at the doorstep of our home on June 12, 1963. Even though thousands of us have worked for many years to see positive change in America, it seems that we may be in a backward trend.

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Do today’s events recall his death?

Everything that is happening now reminds me of that night. When our three little children heard Medgar’s car pull into the driveway, they jumped up for joy and shouted, “There’s Daddy.” But before they could get to the door, a shot rang out. The two older children grabbed their young brother and crawled to the bathroom to get in the tub, which Medgar taught them was the safest place in the house if ever there was gunfire. I rushed to the door and screamed when I saw his body. Then the children came out and ran to him. They were covered with his blood and screamed, “Daddy, get up!”

Were you surprised by the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter?

Absolutely not! Who could not be impacted? I’m very proud that there are enough people who are strong enough to say, “This is not right. This must change.” I became physically ill because of what happened, and I couldn’t join in the protests. I’m pushing 90 years of age now, but I’ll be darned if I’m not as strong as I have ever been in my conviction about what is right and wrong. Not being able to get out there and demonstrate has been extremely difficult for me.

After Medgar’s death, it took decades to bring his killer to justice. Where did that determination come from?

It came from Medgar. I recall telling him once, when we were holding each other and crying, “I cannot make it without you.” And he said, “Myrlie, you’re stronger than you think you are. Take care of my children.” That was one of the last things he ever said to me. His belief in me gave me strength. I was told not to do it. My family and I were threatened. But I said, “To hell with all of you, I’m going to fight this through to the end.” 

What advice can you offer someone dealing with a tragic loss?

I think we all grieve differently. We have different degrees of anger, different degrees of hope. I can only say what I have done is to allow myself to go deeply into my being to look at my strengths and my weaknesses, to look at the issues that are confronting me. I pray to the God that I worship for wisdom, for help and for the strength to fight for what I believe is right. 

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You have said that you should never let others tell you, “You can’t.” Give us an example.

I was told by men, “You can’t be the head of the NAACP. You’re a woman.” I told them, “Watch me!” And I won that seat by one vote. 

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Another one of your rules is: Don’t limit yourself because of your age.

People say that fear will keep you from achieving. No way! You have to meet fear head-on. I can’t do what I used to do, but I’m blessed that I can still think and I can still speak. 

At President Obama’s second inauguration you said, “There’s something within me that holds the reins.” 

That comes from an old hymn my grandmother used to sing. When the president invited me to deliver that invocation, I was afraid of not knowing exactly what to say. So my son locked me in a room and said, “Write!” I didn’t write. I prayed, and those words came through.

What is your vision of how America can reach its promise of freedom and equality?

I wish I could say that I know where we’re going but I cannot, and that is troubling to me. It’s difficult because I have always looked forward to a time of change, of peace instead of hatred, a coming together of people of all races, creeds and colors to work for the betterment of all of us. America has been viewed in the past throughout the world as the land of the free and the home of the brave. We’re truly not that now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t regain it. We’re in a time when all of our values are being challenged, and I believe that our youth are helping to show us the way out of this muck and mire that we’ve been pulled into. So there is hope.

Any wisdom for people—young and old—who are fighting for social change?

Whenever I get upset, I recall the scripture my grandmother used to quote — “Be still and know that I am God!” — and a peace comes over me. I can get very angry, to the point of not being so pleasant in my thoughts. I have to be still to remove myself from all that. I sit up straight, throw my shoulders back and move forward. That’s where I am now.

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