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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Invocation from a woman of courage and determination

Today, Myrlie Evers-Williams will become the first woman and the first layperson to deliver the invocation at a presidential swearing-in ceremony. Just as the use of Martin Luther King Jr’s bible is symbolic of the civil rights struggle in this country, Mrs. Evers-Williams is herself a living legacy of that struggle, which continues.

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Far too many young Americans do not learn this history, nor make connections to the past as part of where we are today and what the future holds for us as a nation.  

For me there is a particular significance in her selection, since too often the role of women in the struggle has been overlooked. She represents the endurance and courage of black women-wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers-of all women who are a bedrock of strength to carry on in the face of adversity.

Though news stories about Evers-Williams selection often refer to her simply as the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated on June 12, 1963, her widowhood is not the sum total of her being, nor of her life before and after that date almost 50 years ago.  

Her courage in confronting racial hatred and pursuing justice for the almost 60 years since she became involved in the struggle for civil and human rights is a powerful example for us all.  

Her life story starting from her birth on March 17, 1933, mirrored those of many black women of her time.  

Myrlie Louise Beasley is the daughter of James Van Dyke Beasley, a delivery man, and Mildred Washington Beasley, only sixteen years old when Myrlie was born on March 17, 1933, in her maternal grandmother’s home on Magnolia Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Myrlie’s parents separated when she just a year old; her mother left Vicksburg and had decided that Myrlie was too young to bring with her. Since her maternal grandmother worked all day in service, leaving her no time to raise a child, Myrlie was raised by her paternal grandmother, Annie McCain Beasley, and an aunt, Myrlie Beasley Polk. Both women were respected school teachers and they inspired her to follow in their footsteps. Myrlie attended the Magnolia school, took piano lessons, and performed songs, piano pieces or recited poetry at school, in church, and at local clubs.

Myrlie graduated from Magnolia High School [Bowman High School] in Vicksburg in 1950. During her years in high school, Myrlie was also a member of the Chansonettes, a girls’ vocal group from Mount Heroden Baptist Church in Vicksburg. In 1950, Myrlie enrolled at Alcorn A&M College, one of the only colleges in the state that accepted African American students, as an education major intending to minor in music. Myrlie is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. An incident on her first day on campus altered her plans; Myrlie met and fell in love with Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran several years her senior. The couple married on Christmas Eve of 1951. They would move to Mound Bayou, have three children, Darrell Kenyatta, Reena Denise, and James Van Dyke. In Mound Bayou, Myrlie worked as a secretary at the Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Many years have passed since she was that young Myrlie. She has important lessons to share with us all that go beyond the tragedies she has faced in her life.

To understand her strength and determination, it is well worth listening to her speaking to a group of young people. My apologies-there is no transcript. But during the course of her address she speaks of the time period in her life when she ran for the position of head of the NAACP. Something that was not particularly welcomed from certain quarters, since she was female.  

She won by one vote.

We are taught to think of her as Medgar Evers’ widow, but I would like to speak about her also as “the woman who saved the NAACP.” Far too many people have forgotten (if they ever knew it) that during the early ’90s the NAACP was in deep trouble. It was failing financially, mostly due to mismanagement.  

An article in The New Crisis, “Only for You, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Only for You” by Robin M. Bennefield, documents what occurred:

Myrlie Evers-Williams is a woman of her word. Her wedding vow to her first husband, Medgar, promised to go the last mile of the way with him. So she could not rest until his murderer was brought to justice, 30 years after she and her children had found him lying in his own blood on their front steps. Her second husband Walter, battling prostate cancer with just two weeks to live, made her promise to save the organization her husband died for. After three years as chairman of the NAACP, Myrlie Evers-Williams kept that promise too…

At the time, the NAACP was 5 million dollars in debt, and membership had dwindled.

Her background as a college administrator and corporate executive would help her at the NAACP She managed a $1 billion budget and 7,000 employees as commissioner of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. “She has exemplified an incredible indomitable spirit,” says C. Delores Tucker, NAACP Special Contributions Fund Committee member and longtime friend of Evers-Williams.

That spirit is the reason Tucker and others believed Evers-Williams was the only one who could reinvent the NAACP. “I never wanted to do it,” Evers-Williams says. She dismissed the thought when longtime friend and fellow board member Joe Madison first suggested she run for chair. Finally, she took the challenge seriously when Williams, her husband of 18 years, told her she had no choice. The former longshoreman, labor and civil rights activist had not more than three weeks to live. “I told him that I just couldn’t leave him. . and he said, `There are two last things I need you to do for me-run and win.”‘

On February 18, 1995, she worried about Williams as she took the podium to calm an agitated crowd inside the New York Sheraton hotel meeting room, where the election for chairman was about to take place. NAACP members stormily refused to leave the board meeting after Gibson called an executive order to clear the room of reporters and members. Evers-Williams addressed to the members: “In the interest of unity would you please leave so that we can conduct our business. Give the process a chance to work.” Then the chant began:”Only for you, Myrlie, Only for you, Myrlie.”

“At that moment, I felt a strong sense of responsibility” says Evers-Williams. “They had put their trust in me to lead the organization out of the morass that it was in.”

Shortly after winning the election her husband Walter Williams died.

In the year following her election, cash balances increased by more than $1 million, the debt reduced by $665,000 and expenses reduced by $6.75 million. More
than $2 million in contributions, revenue, and renewed support flowed into the reorganized and audited bank accounts.

During these times of increased voter disenfranchisement, and efforts to destroy historical civil rights gains which were spearheaded by the NAACP (among others), we need the NAACP more than ever. Though she left the helm in 1998, it was on her shoulders that a new, financially stable and vital NAACP was born to carry on to this day, and into the future.

Thank you, sister.

I wonder how many of us can imagine trying to organize, be a wife and mother under conditions of terrorism. For me one of the greatest failures of this nation has been the fact that white terrorists like the Klan were allowed to wage war on black folks with impunity.

Reading Evers-William’s words about the life she and her family led should give all of us pause. Imagine training your children to deal with the possibility of being firebombed or shot.

As leaders of the movement, the Evers’s were high-profile targets for the terrorist acts of pro-segregationists. Their lives grew complex with the necessity of elaborate subterfuge and intrigue. Medgar drove around Mississippi in various disguises, always taking a different route home to confuse anyone following him, and frequently switched vehicles several times during the course of one trip for the same reason. He and Myrlie used codes when speaking on the telephone, and they taught their three children to throw themselves to the floor upon hearing any strange sound outside as a means of protecting themselves from sniper attacks. Myrlie even rehearsed what steps she would take if her husband was shot in her presence. “It was a time when we never knew if we would see each other again when he left home – so we had an agreement with each other that we would never part in anger,” she recalled in Emerge.

As the Movement and the violence continued to intensify, Medgar was haunted by the foreboding that his life was nearly over – a premonition that Myrlie shared. “We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day,” she told Marshall. “Medgar knew what he was doing, and he knew what the risks were. He just decided that he had to do what he had to do. But I knew at some point in time he would be taken from me.” During the spring of 1962, threats against the Evers family peaked due to Medgar’s organization of a boycott of downtown Jackson’s white merchants. Their home was firebombed one night while he was away at a meeting: Myrlie doused the flames with a garden hose, terrified all the while that snipers were waiting for her in the shadows outside.

Though she stands as a symbol for her determined pursuit of justice, in the case of Klan terrorist Byron De La Beckwith, what is a tragedy is the fact that it took over 30 years for that justice to take place.

For more of the history I suggest reading For Us The Living.

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“Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband.” Myrlie Evers said this in 1967 when her brave book was first published. In 1994, at long last after three controversial trials, justice was served when the killer was convicted and given a life sentence.

At thirty-seven Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP, died in a horrifying act of political violence. Outside his home, in the summer of 1963, he was gunned down by a midnight assassin. This memoir by an extraordinary woman tells a moving story of her courtship and marriage and of her husband’s unrelenting devotion to the quest of achieving civil rights for thousands of black Mississippians.

Readers of Myrlie Evers’s story will note an aching piece of irony. Her husband’s tragic martyrdom quickened the pace of justice for black people while withholding it from him for thirty years.

Tomorrow she will take the national stage for a brief moment in time to deliver an invocation to the nation. There is much we can learn from her beyond those brief words, whatever they may be.

She has mentioned a spiritual that is one of her favorites.  

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,

If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,

If I can show somebody, how they’re traveling wrong,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

Lyrics by Alma B Androzzo

Truly, her life has not been in vain.

cross posted from Daily Kos


  1. melvin

    If she had had the most pampered life in the world, which she certainly hasn’t, that still isn’t 80. I saw her on the Rev’s show, and her mind is equally young. It makes one wonder about what it means – at the cellular, muscular, mental and spiritual levels – to stay engaged.

  2. Avilyn

    very touching and informative piece on Myrlie Evers-Williams.  I did not know much about her other than the widow-hood you mention, which surely is not the sum total of her person.  Would that the MSM could report like this.

  3. The presidency of Barack Obama has introduced so many of us to the lives and accomplishments of people of color. We are certainly not post-racial but as we learn more about each other’s history we are creating connections that will, I hope, one day make that possible.

  4. HappyinVT

    Like others I knew Evers-Williams as the widow of Medgar but not as a woman and civil rights activist.

    I also cannot fathom watching your husband walk out the door worrying whether he’d come home again.  There is a strength there not many possess.

    Tomorrow will be a beautiful day in so many respects.

  5. I think this is going to be a recurring theme.

    “Wait, Donna was in the womb that day, my brother was two months old, that was the day he/she was born…”

    The combination of crossing the half-century mark personally in lock-step with history is starting to catch me frequently. As a 65er I have my own reckoning with history just a bit ahead of me, but my peer group as a child were all my brother’s friends, and theirs, so this year is the start of the cascade and semi-centennial anniversaries for me as well.

    Looking half a century in the eye is a cause to pause for any of us. While the dates have always been in my head, it is only now that I am truly seeing the frame of this period of time in such a personal perspective. Everyone I have known longest was born, was an infant, took their first steps on in innocent oblivion on the days that those who are – from the vantage of our present ages – just the slightest bit older were taking great strides.

    I will watch Mrs. Evrs-Williams with a new perspective tomorrow. Thank you very much for educating me, again.

  6. mapamp

    She is 15–just the right age to feel it and to see it and, hopefully, use it to inspire her to leadership.

    Thank you.

  7. melvin

    Obama’s hand will rest on the King and Lincoln bibles stacked like pancakes. And he has chosen as inaugural poet Richard Blanco:

    As my official bio reads, I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States — meaning my mother, seven months pregnant, and the rest of my family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid, where I was born. Less than two months later, we emigrated once more and settled in New York City, then eventually in Miami, where I was raised and educated.

    By the time I was 45 days old, I belonged to three countries. My first newborn photo appears on my U.S. alien registration card.

    .  .  .  .

    My sexual identity was something I also had to negotiate. The antagonist in my coming-out story was my grandmother, a woman as xenophobic as she was homophobic. Anything she perceived as culturally “weird,” she also labeled as “faggotry” — “mariconeria.” This included my playing with toys like G.I. Joes and action figures of super heroes (Wonder Woman being my favorite). Convinced that I was queer — she had good intuition, I guess — she was verbally and psychologically abusive because she was also convinced she could make me a “real” man.

    She scared me into a closet so deep and dark that the idea of living as a gay man was completely, like a career in arts, out of the realm of possibilities. And so, like many gay men of my generation, I led a straight life, and was even engaged twice to be married, until I came out in my mid-20s.

  8. Kysen

    of whom I knew so very little.

    I will just echo Blasky:

    Thank you very much for educating me, again.

    Thanks, Dee…

    /big hugs

  9. DeniseVelez

    I’m trying to figure how I’ll watch – I really hate pundit chatter. C-span will probably be a best bet.  

  10. Aji

    explain to me how to rec a diary over here?  I rec’d this at the GOS, natch, but here, all I see are “Like,” “Tweet,” “Share,” and I guess the “+” is for “Hotlist?”  But I see a “Rec List,” so presumably there must be a way . . . ?

  11. auron renouille

    There’s a lot of stuff going in our lives right now (to say the least).

    But I did anyways via my laptop on the MSNBC feed and I have to admit that, watching President Obama take the oath again, with his daughters standing front and center, has really brought me to tears.  Wow.

  12. DeniseVelez

    America, we are here, our nation’s capital, on this day, January the 21st, 2013, the inauguration of our 45th president, Barack Obama. We come at this time to ask blessings upon our leaders, the president, vice president, members of Congress, all elected and appointed officials of the

    United States of America.

    We are here to ask blessings upon our armed forces, blessings upon all who contribute to the essence of the American spirit, the American dream, the opportunity to become whatever our mankind, womankind allows us to be. This is the promise of America.

    As we sing the words of belief, “This Is My Country,” let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included. May the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of every woman, man, boy and girl be honored. May all your people, especially the least of these, flourish in our blessed nation.

    One hundred-fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes, to today’s expression of a more perfect union.

    We ask, too, Almighty, that where our paths seem blanketed (ph) by throngs (ph) of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance and that the vision of those who came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us. They are a great cloud of witnesses unseen by the naked eye, but all around us, thankful that their living was not in vain.

    For every mountain, you gave us the strength to climb. Your brace (ph) is pleaded to continue that climb for America and the world.

    We now stand beneath the shadow of the nation’s Capitol, whose golden dome reflects the unity and democracy of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

    thanks to JoanMar who found them

  13. nomandates

    Thanks so much for this diary, DeniseVelez. I know I had a fuller understanding of her accomplishments and enjoyment of her words today thanks to your efforts.

  14. Moozmuse

    PoC. I had never heard of Myrlie Evers-Williams, and am so glad I have. A very beautiful, inspirational woman. Strong, but with a quiet strength I really admire.  

  15. sarahnity

    I’ve been away from the Moose for days, so I missed this when it was fresh, but it was just as tasty days old.

    I first heard of Medgar and Myrlie from watching Eyes on the Prize, but I didn’t know about her work with the NAACP in the 90s.

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