Perseverance, keeping your “eyes on the prize” and remaining true to the memory and ideals of those who worked so hard to ensure equal rights and justice for all were recurring themes of Myrlie Evers-Williams Jan. 23. As the keynote speaker for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Celebration and in a press conference beforehand, Evers-Williams discussed her life before and after the 1963 assassination of her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
After his death, she took up the mantle of leadership and worked tirelessly to bring justice to his killer, serve as the first woman head of the NAACP, raise a family and serve her community. She even ran for Congress, in 1969-70, at a time when only three or four other women were running nationally. That brought more criticism, for not staying in what society perceived as a woman’s place, to which she replied, “I have to work and I, too, want to build a better place for my children.”
She was naturally a shy person, she said, “but Medgar pushed me a lot to develop what he saw as my strengths.” That stood her in good stead when she had to go on alone, she said, despite her grief and sometimes near-despair. “My love for him kept me going,” she said. “Also, I felt that as long as I kept his name in front of the public he wouldn’t be forgotten—and maybe I was just ornery enough never to give up.”
Referring to the BGSU Gospel Choir’s rendition of the spiritual “I Can Make It,” Evers-Williams said it is important to keep believing that and to look for inspiration. She would like to see the remembrance of leaders like King and her husband be built into school curricula and community events year-round, both as encouragement and in their honor.
Remembering her reaction the day she saw a department store advertisement in a newspaper for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day sale—after the long struggle to get the states to adopt the holiday—she said wryly, “Well, now we’ve finally made it.”
Through a more intentional focus, “we need to continually link the past to young people so they can see the importance of what went before and where they need to go.
“I truly don’t believe the younger generation understands the sacrifices my generation made, and part of that is my generation’s decision not to put those sacrifices in front of them. We didn’t want them to see what might happen to them. And part of it was probably battle fatigue,” she added, recalling the harrowing events of life in the era of the civil rights struggle. “Now we need to give them a better sense of the history of what took place before Dr. King came into prominence.”
Finding sources of motivation to persevere and using innovation to surmount problems are required if one is to keep up a fight over the long term. There were times following the deaths of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, King and Malcolm X when she felt her hatred for her oppressors was what kept her going, she said, until a word from her young daughter reminded her of her husband’s admonition never to hate.
Then she remembered his words: “‘Myrlie,’ he said, ‘those you hate don’t know it, and those who do don’t care. You become the victim. Just live the best life you can for all humanity.’”
Evers-Williams cautioned that it is unwise to look to one leader for inspiration or guidance. It is important to find the potential in many leaders, and to support one another in shared quests, she said. While the media seems to always want to identify a leader upon whom to focus, she encouraged her audience to work together for social justice.
Even King said “I can’t do this myself; I am not a movement unto myself,” she reminded the audience.
Sometimes it is difficult to see what has been achieved, she said. “You don’t always win what you think you have to win, but you always have to fight for what you believe in.”
Today’s problems call for different approaches than the marches and protests of the ’60s, she said. “Putting one’s body in front of hoses and police trucks—no. I don’t see the need for that anymore and I hope never to see that again. Today we’re much more sophisticated,” she said, mentioning technology and other communication tools as new ways to promote causes.
Evers-Williams said she will not endorse a candidate in the presidential race, but is thrilled to see both a woman and a black man in the running, something that would have been unimaginable even five years ago. “It’s so exciting to have a choice. We haven’t always had that.”
However, she has been “deeply concerned about their safety from day one,” she said. “I keep them safely close to my heart and in my prayers.”
Another concern she expressed was “how in debt we are and how China owns so much of this nation. And we still say how rich we are and how smart we are. I think Dr. King would say ‘Wake up and be aware! Look into the past and learn from those lessons.’”
On an individual level, she said, “I want to see a sense of dignity and respect for oneself. How can you respect yourself when you are allowing yourself to be addressed disrespectfully?” Never would she allow herself to be called “Ho” or “whore,” she said, noting a current trend. “If someone called me that, I would have a hard time stopping my hand from striking them.”
Nor does she accept the use of “the N-word,” she said, “as affectionate or loving. People who use that don’t realize all the people who were beaten and who died because of the disrespect that word embodied.” Hearing that word, she said, she had to ask herself, “What was I born? I realized I was born as the N-word.” Then came the term Negro, then black (which had once been considered offensive itself), and now African-American. “I can live with any of those so long as it’s respectful because I know who I am.”