Merlene Davis: Myrlie Evers-Williams doesn't want us to forget

Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, will speak at a black history observance at Georgetown College on Feb 5.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, will speak at a black history observance at Georgetown College on Feb 5.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights icon Medgar Evers, has never completely recovered from watching her husband struggling to live after being shot in their Jackson, Miss., driveway.

"There has never been a complete recovery from something as traumatic as seeing and hearing your husband, father, shot down and killed," she said. "Those are memories that stay in your mind forever."

And, while she doesn't necessarily want Evers' death to resonate in the same way with us, she does want us to remember the nearly forgotten freedom fighter who led the charge for equal rights before the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. made headlines.

"Evers was the forerunner for King, like John the Baptist," said John H. Jones, who is president of the Central Kentucky Chapter of the Alcorn State University Alumni Association and invited Evers-Williams to Kentucky. She will be the guest speaker for the association's 2011 black history observance Feb. 5 at Georgetown College.

Evers-Williams was home with the couple's three children shortly after midnight on June 12, 1963, when she heard a car pull into the driveway. Gunshots rang out, the children dove to the floor as they had been taught, and she rushed outside to find her husband bleeding from wounds in his back.

For more than a decade before his assassination, Evers had fought for voting rights, for equal access to public accommodations, for the desegregation of the University of Mississippi, and for equal rights in general for Mississippi's black people. He was named the NAACP field secretary in that state.

The family had been threatened, their home firebombed and Evers targeted by the Ku Klux Klan.

"As his wife, I knew what he was going through, of being the spokesperson, of putting his life on the line when no one else was," Evers-Williams, 77, said by phone from her home in Clairmont, Calif.

"The public is fickle," she said. "They soon forget what has transpired and the names and the work of those who don't have the luxury of publicists around them."

But she didn't forget, and she said she isn't about to let her first husband's work be forgotten, either.

"Medgar is known for his death and not for what he did," she said.

But, first things first. There needed to be some closure.

After Evers' death, Evers-Williams continually put pressure on authorities to convict Byron De La Beckwith, then a 42-year-old fertilizer salesman and founding member of Mississippi's White Citizens Council, who some believed was responsible for Evers' murder.

De La Beckwith was tried in 1964 and 1965, with both trials ending in a hung jury. But in 1994, De La Beckwith was retried and found guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 73. He died in prison in 2001.

When people ask why she continued to revisit the pain, Evers-Williams said, "You will not forget this man and his work. (My continued work) has been out of my love and respect for him and what he did and how important it is for our young people to know the true history of those times."

It hasn't been easy for the family, however. Her youngest child, James Van Evers, was 3 when his father was killed and remembers the blood and his mother's screams. Her daughter, Reena Evers-Everette, "still has those survivor skills that are very firmly implanted," Evers-Williams said. "It's where you listen to all the sounds and survey where you are. You are always on edge, even in crowds that seem friendly. There is always that little something that says be careful."

The people who were witnesses to or injured in the recent shooting in Tucson, Ariz., will experience the same thing, she said. "You don't know who can be amongst you who could smile, shake your hand and have a gun.

"It is a terrible way to live if you let it overwhelm you," she said.

Darrell Evers, her oldest child, now deceased, never got over his dad's death. A talented artist, his work often had a tinge of anger and frustration that he could not move past, she said.

Evers-Williams moved her family to California after De La Beckwith's second trial. She earned a bachelor's degree in sociology, a quest she had set aside when she met Evers at Alcorn College. In 1976, she married Walter Williams, a longshoreman and civil rights and union activist who had studied Evers and his work.

"My Walter," Evers-Williams said. "We had something in common. We both respected and loved Edgar. If that mutual feeling had not been there, I would never have married him. Walter was my best friend."

But didn't he feel threatened by the memory of an icon?

"I know I talk about everything that happened too much," she said, "talk about Medgar more than I should. He (Williams) said 'I know it is important to you and important to history. I have been a part of the movement and you are my wife.' "

Williams died in 1995 of prostate cancer, shortly after she had been named national board chairwoman of the NAACP.

Evers-Williams' visit here will also highlight a national movement to raise money to erect a statue of Evers on the Alcorn State campus. Evers graduated with the class of 1952.

John H. Jones, who is also the national chairperson for the Medgar Evers Statue Campaign, said it is a matter of natural progression. Evers has a college named for him and, when it is completed in 2012, the USNS Medgar Evers. It's time for the statue.

Evers-Williams said she hopes to see the statue erected in 2013, the 50th anniversary of Evers' death.

"To finally reach this point where there is a unified group that recognizes Medgar and how he changed Mississippi and this nation, I feel so blessed to take part in this," she said. "It is healing to me. It has been a long time coming."