Evers, Myrlie 1933–
Myrlie Evers 1933–
Civil rights activist
Medgar Evers Is Slain
Myrlie Evers’s life was shattered on June 12, 1963, when she opened her front door to find her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, dying on their porch—the victim of a sniper’s bullet. In the days and weeks that followed, she showed her courage by continuing Medgar’s fight for racial equality, even in the face of threats on her own life; and when her husband’s murderer was allowed to walk free, Myrlie Evers showed her incredible persistence by working for 30 years to see justice done. Her dogged determination paid off in 1994, when Byron De La Beckwith was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Medgar Evers.
A sheltered childhood in Vicksburg, Mississippi did little to prepare young Myrlie Beasley for the violent realities of her adult life. After her parents separated when she was very young, she was raised by her grandmother, Annie McCain Beasley, and an aunt, Myrlie Beasley Polk. Both of these women were schoolteachers, and they inspired her to follow in their footsteps. In 1950, she enrolled at Alcorn A & M College as an education major intending to minor in music. But an incident occurred during her first day on campus that would alter her plans.
Myrlie met fellow student Medgar Evers—an upperclassman, an Army veteran, and a member of the football team. “He was strong, responsible, and someone you could count on,” she recalled to Ebony contributor Marilyn Marshall. Myrlie was swept off her feet, and the two were married on Christmas Eve of the following year. She left school, while Medgar went on to graduate in 1952, with a degree in business administration.
Medgar Evers had already been involved in civil rights work for several years. After serving in World War II, he and his brothers had dared to register to vote—a bold move for any black citizen in the South at that time. When election day arrived, however, the Evers brothers, along with other black voters, were blocked from the polls by about 200 armed white men. They left without casting their votes; and shortly thereafter joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) to begin working for change.
Medgar’s involvement with the NAACP continued throughout college and into the first years of his marriage, when he earned his living as an insurance salesman. Myrlie credited her husband with raising her consciousness about matters of racial pride and justice. “He’s the one who told me to stop biting my bottom lip and to be proud of my large lips,” she told Karen
Born Myrlie Beasley, c 1933, in Vicksburg, MS; married Medgar Riley Evers (a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), December 24, 1951 (deceased); married Walter Edgar Williams (a longshoreman), July 31, 1976; children: (first marriage) Darrell Kenyatta, Reena Denise, James Van Dyke. Education: Pomona College, B.A., 1968; attended Alcorn A & M College.
Claremont College system, Claremont, CA, assistant director of planning and development, 1969-70; vice-president of an advertising agency in the early 1970s; Atlantic Richfield Company, consumer affairs director, 1975-88; commissioner, Los Angeles Board of Public Works, 1988-91. Public speaker for NAACP and other civic organizations. Author of For Us the Living, 1967.
Addresses: Office— c/o NAACP, 1972 West Lynch St, Jackson, MS 39203.
Grigsby Bates in Emerge. “It was he who told me to stop straightening my hair and be proud of my kinky hair. It was Medgar who told me to stop using bleach on my face to be lighter and to be proud of my Blackness.”
In 1954, Medgar became the Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP, establishing an office in the city of Jackson. Myrlie worked as his secretary, and together, they organized voter registration drives and civil rights demonstrations. As the civil rights movement gained in power, the dangers increased for those involved in it.
Myrlie recalled in Emerge that the simple act of registering to vote often brought disastrous consequences to those brave enough to do it: “Their names would be published in the newspaper with their addresses and phone numbers, and they would be harassed by phone calls, people driving by, throwing rocks, eggs, firebombs.… Or the banks would call in mortgages with no notice. People got fired from their jobs immediately. Or lassoed as they were walking home, dragged into a car [and then beaten]. All this because they wanted to vote.”
As leaders of the movement, the Evers 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; 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.
Racial tensions were unusually high throughout the South on June 11, 1963. That evening, President John F. Kennedy made a televised speech in which he pleaded for racial harmony and announced that he would submit new civil rights legislation to Congress—the speech infuriated many segregationists. The events of that fateful day stand out vividly in Myrlie Evers’s memory. She told Bates: “That morning, after we embraced and said, ‘Goodbye,’ [Medgar] went out to the car and then came back in after a moment or two and embraced all over again…. He said, ‘Myrlie, I’m so tired. I don’t think I can make it, but I can’t stop.’” After leaving home, he telephoned his wife several times throughout the day to say that he loved her.
As the night wore on, Myrlie sat up with the children, watching television as she waited for Medgar to return from his last meeting of the day. At approximately 12:30 a.m. on June 12, she was relieved to hear his Oldsmobile pull up in the driveway; but only a moment later, the sound of a gunshot rang out. The children fell to the floor as they had been drilled, while Myrlie ran outside to find her husband bleeding profusely. He had been shot in the back. Neighbors rushed the wounded man to nearby University Hospital (now the University of Mississippi Medical Center). “When they were putting him in the car, I understand he said, ‘Let me go. Let me go,’” Myrlie told Bates. “Those were his last words. To this day, I regret that our well-meaning neighbors held me back and did not allow me to accompany him.”
The University Hospital was open to whites only, and Medgar was at first refused admission. When hospital officials realized who he was, they broke the hospital’s color barrier for the first time in its history—but too late to save Medgar Evers’s life. He died some 50 minutes after being shot. Myrlie was devastated that she had not been able to follow through with the careful plans she had laid for dealing with just such a catastrophe. She told Marshall: “It took the longest time for our doctor to convince me that I could not have saved him if only I had stuffed his chest cavity with cloth.”
Four thousand mourners attended Medgar Evers’s funeral on June 15, 1963. As the procession wound through the streets of Jackson, onlookers began to chant: “After Medgar, no more fear! After Medgar, no more fear!” Myrlie Evers recounted in Emerge that “it was like a dam had burst, and people were no longer afraid.”
About 150 feet from the site of the fatal shooting, an Enfield 30.06 military rifle had been found; the gun’s scope was covered with the fingerprints of its owner, Byron De La Beckwith. De La Beckwith, a 42-year-old fertilizer salesman, was an outspoken opponent of integration and a founding member of Mississippi’s White Citizens Council. While publicly denying that he had anything to do with the Evers slaying, De La Beckwith unabashedly stated that he was glad it had happened. He boasted privately to at least one person of having done it. Bates wrote that De La Beckwith was later quoted as boasting at a Klu Klux Klan meeting: “Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children…. We ask them to do that for us. We should do just as much.”
Although the gun that had killed Evers was unquestionably De La Beckwith’s, he claimed that it had been stolen from him a short time before the killing. A car matching the description of his had been seen by several witnesses near the Evers home on the night of the crime, but three policemen from his home town of Greenwood—some 60 miles from Jackson—testified that the suspected murderer had been there with them, playing cards. De La Beckwith was brought to trial, but the proceedings seemed a sham. Myrlie Evers had to fight for the simple right of being addressed as “Mrs. Evers” in court, and during her testimony, Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, sat with the accused, patting him on the back and putting his arm around him for support. An all-white jury deadlocked, letting De La Beckwith go free. When the case was retried a short time later, the result was the same.
Myrlie Evers struggled through those first months, flooded with feelings of bitter hatred for De La Beckwith and all he stood for. “I am not ashamed of it,” she told Bates. “I’m human, and that was the only emotion that carried me through the first year. I lived to hate. I lived to pay back.” After twelve months of widowhood, she decided that she and the children could no longer remain in the house she’d shared with her husband. “It was just too painful to be there,” she was quoted as saying in Emerge. “You couldn’t get all the blood out of the carpet. Too many reminders. Medgar had always said that Mississippi would be the best place to live, after Jim Crow got abolished…. But if we were ever to leave Mississippi, he said we’d move to California. So that’s what we did.” The Evers’s home in Jackson has since been donated to Tougaloo College; the street on which it stands was declared a national historic site.
Claremont, a quiet college town some 30 miles east of Los Angeles, became Myrlie Evers’s new home. There she enrolled in Pomona College and began working toward her bachelor’s degree in sociology; she also wrote a book about her husband, entitled For Us the Living, and made numerous personal appearances on behalf of the NAACP. On the surface, her life seemed tranquil, but Evers retained the sense of peril that had marked her last years with her husband. “I still slept with a gun, even though I was afraid to do it because of the fact that the kids might come in at night,” she confessed in Emerge.
After graduating from Pomona College, Evers became the assistant director of planning and development for the Claremont College system; eventually, she took a position as consumer affairs director for the Atlantic Richfield Company and moved to Los Angeles. In June of 1988, she was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the city’s five-member Board of Public Works. The powerful commission managed a budget of nearly one billion dollars and a staff of 5,000 employees; Evers was the first black woman to be a part of it. The life she created for herself in the aftermath of her husband’s slaying was busy and fulfilling, but as the decades passed, she never lost sight of the fact that his killer remained unpunished. “Not a day passes when I don’t think about him, or something he said or did,” Marshall quoted her as saying.
Accordingly, Evers returned from time to time to Mississippi—to keep in touch with her roots, and to keep tabs on De La Beckwith. In 1989, her untiring search for new evidence paid off. She was told that several people might be willing to come forth and testify that De La Beckwith had indeed been in Jackson on the night of the murder. When she approached the state’s attorney general about reopening the case, however, she was told that too much time had passed, and too much money would be wasted to justify such action. Undeterred, Evers informed the attorney general that she would reopen the trial with independent counsel; in the face of the bad publicity that this would generate for his state, the attorney general reconsidered his decision. But roadblocks continued to impede the progress of the retrial.
A key piece of evidence—De La Beckwith’s rifle—had to be retrieved from the home of the judge who had presided over the original trial, where it was being kept as a souvenir. Evers was then told that no transcripts of the original trial could be found and without one, the retrial proceedings could go no further. She learned that from 1956 to 1973, a secret organization called the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission—funded with state taxpayers’ money—had been charged with spying on civil rights activists and organizations. The commission had spirited away important documents related to the killing, including all trial transcripts.
Fortunately, Evers had put an original transcript away in a safe deposit box many years earlier. She produced it, and in 1990, Byron De La Beckwith was reindicted for the murder of Medgar Evers, after new witnesses stepped forth to dispute his alibi. The key witness in the trial was Mark Reiley, a former hospital prison guard who had been in charge of De La Beckwith in 1979. At that time, De La Beckwith was jailed after police searched his car and found a bomb, other weapons, and a map to the New Orleans home of a prominent member of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Reiley testified that De La Beckwith had bragged to him about “killing that uppity nigger Medgar Evers.”
On February 5, 1994, after deliberating for some seven hours, a jury of eight African Americans and four whites convicted 73-year-old De La Beckwith of Medgar Evers’s murder, sentencing him to life in prison. Ronald Smothers reported in the New York Times that after the verdict was read, Myrlie Evers “broke into a smile, shouted a cheer, and raised a clenched fist to the sky in triumph…. it sends a message that it is no longer open season on “jungle bunnies,’” she said, emphasizing the last two words. ‘Medgar’s life was not in vain, and perhaps he did more in death than he could have in life. Somehow I think he is still among us.’”
Altman, Susan, Extraordinary Black Americans From Colonial to Contemporary Times, Children’s Press, 1989.
Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Brown, Jeanne, Medgar Evers, Activist, Holloway, 1992.
Massengill, Reed, Portrait of a Racist: The Man Who Killed Medgar Evers?, St. Martin, 1993.
Nossiter, Adam, Of Long Memory: Mississippi and the Murder of Medgar Evers, Addison-Wesley, 1993.
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Ebony, June 1988, pp. 108-116; May 1991, p. 62.
Emerge, February 1994, pp. 35-46.
Esquire, July 1991.
Essence, February 1986; December 1988, p. 48.
Jet, April 6, 1987, p. 16; March 4, 1991, p. 5.
Life, spring 1988, p. 54.
Newsweek, July 23, 1990; February 21, 1994, p. 24.
New York Times, January 28, 1994, p. A-12; February 6, 1994, pp. 1, 30; February 8, 1994, p. A-22.
People, February 11, 1991.
Time, February 7, 1994, p. 19.
Valley News (Lebanon, NH), February 6, 1994, pp. 1-2.
Myrlie Evers-Williams's name may forever evoke the legacy of her first husband, slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, but Myrlie Evers-Williams (born 1933) has never rested quietly on his laurels. Instead, the first woman elected Board of Directors Chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has spent a lifetime carving out a formidable civil rights legacy of her own.
Myrlie Evers-Williams was born in the Mississippi city of Vicksburg in 1933 in her maternal grandmother's frame house to a 16-year-old mother and a 28-year-old father, Evers-Williams was the only child born to the couple, who separated before her first birthday. Because of her mother's age, the family decided that it would be best if Evers-Williams was left in the care of her paternal grandmother, Annie McCain Beasley, a retired school teacher whom she called "Mama."
Though her mother left Vicksburg shortly after her marriage to James Van Dyke Beasley dissolved, Evers-Williams was surrounded by family while growing up. Besides her father and grandmother, with whom she lived, Evers-Williams regularly saw her maternal grandmother, and took piano lessons from her aunt, teacher Myrlie Beasley Polk. It is not surprising, then, that Evers-Williams remembered "only warmth and love and protectiveness from all of the people around me" in For Us, the Living, a 1967 memoir she wrote (with William Peters) about her life, and that of Medgar Evers.
Nor is it surprising, in this environment filled with educators, that Evers-Williams would develop a taste and an appetite for learning. A gifted pianist, she hoped to study music in college. However, Evers-Williams was denied the Mississippi state financial aid that would have enabled her to attend the respected school of music at Fisk University in Nashville and was forced because of segregation to choose a school from Mississippi's two state colleges for African Americans, neither of which offered a major in music. She settled on Alcorn A&M College, where she planned to major in education and minor in music.
It was at Alcorn, during her first day on campus, that Evers-Williams met Medgar Evers, a business student who had started his studies there in the fall term of 1948. Her family initially disapproved of her romance with the older Evers—a World War II veteran roughly eight years her senior—but they continued to see each other steadily. They married on December 24, 1951, in a church in the bride's hometown of Vicksburg.
After roughly two years of study (around the time that Evers graduated from Alcorn), Evers-Williams left college, and the pair eventually settled in Jackson, Mississippi, where Evers (after a stint as an insurance agent) became the state's first NAACP field secretary. Evers-Williams worked alongside him, joining her husband's staff as his secretary. Like her husband, she was incensed by the appalling living conditions endured by sharecroppers.
Evers's efforts in the Mississippi civil rights movement, including attempts to desegregate schools and public buildings and secure voting rights for all citizens, are what led to his murder. He was shot in front of the family house in Jackson on June 12, 1963, as his wife and three children watched helplessly. His killer, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, was quickly arrested and charged in the shooting, but all-white juries deadlocked in two trials in 1964, freeing Beckwith. Evers-Williams, who had become active in the NAACP during her marriage, spent the next 30 years trying to bring Beckwith to justice.
Evers-Williams's dogged pursuit of the man who killed Medgar Evers paid off. When the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger uncovered new information around 1989 suggesting jury tampering and official intervention in the case, Evers-Williams used the fresh evidence to convince reluctant Mississippi officials to conduct a new trial. As she told People magazine in 1991, shortly after Beckwith was arrested again, "People have said, 'Let it go, it's been a long time. Why bring up all the pain and anger again?' But I can't let it go. It's not finished for me, my children or four grandchildren." On February 5, 1994, a racially diverse Hinds County, Mississippi, jury found Beckwith guilty of the slaying. The victory was especially important for Evers-Williams. "When (the trial) was over, every pore was wide open and the demons left," she told Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times Magazine in 1994. "I was reborn when that jury said, 'Guilty!"'
After the murder and the failure of the initial trials to bring a conviction, Evers-Williams moved to the middle class college town of Claremont, California, with her three children. There, she completed work on a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1968 at Pomona College, one of the five Claremont colleges. While in school, Evers-Williams accepted speaking engagements for the NAACP and worked on For Us, the Living. In 1983, the book was adapted for a television movie starring Irene Cara and Howard Rollins. The Claremont Colleges hired Evers-Williams after her graduation as a development director in 1968. Two years later, at the behest of local residents, she made her first foray into the political arena with a run for U.S. Congress as a Democrat in the primarily Republican 24th District. Her bid for office was unsuccessful, but she did capture over 30 percent of the vote in the area.
By the early 1970s, Evers-Williams had moved with her children to New York, where she was a vice president at the advertising firm of Seligman and Latz. In 1975, she joined Atlantic Richfield, a petroleum, chemical, and natural resource firm based in Los Angeles, where she eventually rose to director of community affairs. During this period, she also became a columnist for Ladies' Home Journal.
Evers-Williams met the man who would become her second husband at the Claremont Colleges. In 1976 she married longshoreman and civil rights and union activist Walter Williams at Little Bridges Chapel at Claremont College. She did not take Williams's surname at that time out of respect for Medgar Evers. Williams—referred to by Evers-Williams in an article in the July 1991 issue of Esquire as "my best friend, my Rock of Gibraltar"—reportedly understood this, and stood by her decision.
Following an unsuccessful run for city council in Los Angeles in 1987, Evers-Williams was appointed one of the five commissioners on the Board of Public Works by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, where she was in charge of some 5,000 to 6,000 employees and a multi-million dollar budget for basic city services and improvements such as road maintenance. Evers-Williams continued her work with the NAACP along with her other commitments. As vice-chair of the board of the NAACP in 1994, she knew that the group had fallen on difficult times, as it faced mounting debt and scandal. As she acknowledged in the New York Times Magazine in 1994, "We need strong leadership, which I hope will include more women at the helm. We need more leaders who guard the monies of the association very carefully—and who do not abuse the privileges that come with leadership."
After considerable deliberation, especially in light of the failing health of her second husband, Evers-Williams announced her decision to run for the position of chair of the NAACP in mid-February of 1995. In a close race for control of the organization's 64-member board of directors later that month, Evers-Williams defeated incumbent William Gibson, a South Carolina dentist who had led the NAACP board since 1985, by 30-to-29.
Following her win, Jack W. White in Time magazine quoted Evers-Williams as having told participants at an NAACP meeting in New York, "Duty beckons me. I am strong. Test me and you will see." As White observed, Evers-Williams will need that strength to bolster the organization. As Evers-Williams begins her tenure, she must address the internal troubles and tensions that have shaken the NAACP in recent years. Former executive director Benjamin Chavis was ousted in 1994 after 15 months on the job for sexual harassment and financial mismanagement. Gibson reportedly misspent organization funds as well. The NAACP was about $4 million in debt when Evers-Williams entered office, and charges of gender discrimination, beyond those levied at Chavis, abounded in the ranks.
Those who know Evers-Williams believed that she was up to the task. Arthur Johnson, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP from 1986 to 1993, told the Detroit Free Press in February of 1995 that he felt that "Myrlie Evers will raise the sights of NAACP members around the country and will generate a stronger and better feeling of common cause among the members." A February 21, 1995 editorial in the New York Times expressed similar confidence in Evers-Williams, arguing that she "seems well suited to the task of reasserting the NAACP's trademark blend of militance and inclusivity," and that she "has given the NAACP a new chance at what looked like the last minute." A writer for the Nation was likewise upbeat about her prospects, saying that she brings "a long history of struggle, a large slice of NAACP tradition and great integrity to her new task." Paul Ruffins in the Nation, similarly, noted that Evers-Williams offers "a model of life and leadership in the post-civil rights era" as well as significant management experience.
For her part, Evers-Williams has said that she will reach out to younger members of the African American community, that she will work to restore the organization's image and financial state, and that she will focus on present threats to past civil rights achievements, such as affirmative action and fair housing and lending rules. Even this triumph for Evers-Williams was tempered by tragedy, though. Williams, who had urged his wife to seek the top post of the NAACP, lost a lengthy battle with cancer on February 22, 1995, at the couple's Oregon home. Evers-Williams, who had been elected to the post just days earlier, was at his side when he died. "I kept telling him, 'I need to be with you,' and he kept saying, 'This is something you've got to do,"' Evers-Williams related in Jet.
Evers-Williams was sworn in as chairperson of the NAACP on Mother's Day, May 14, 1995, at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, before over 1,000 supporters. There, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press, she renewed her pledge to restore the NAACP in name and deed, telling the assembly, "I will give my all to the NAACP to see that it becomes stronger, to see that we regain our rightful place as the premier civil rights organization in this country." After Evers-Williams' inauguration, Ruffins asserted that the NAACP had "regained its moral center of gravity." Although she faced opposition by some board members, Evers-Williams' involvement seemed to bring a renewal of support for the organization. Harper's Bazaar reported a flood of dues from the group's 2200 branches, and noted that much-needed corporate and celebrity donations were coming in again. As Evers-Williams pointed out in Harper's Bazaar, the NAACP still has a long way to go. "The perception that we don't have a financial crisis jsut because I was elected is totally erroneous," she noted. However, it appeared that if anyone could get the NAACP back into shape, Evers-Williams could. During her first year of chairmanship, Ever-Williams generated much praise for reducing the organization's deficit, healing wounded souls on the divided board, and hiring Kweisi Mfume as president to guide the NAACP into the next century.
Black Enterprise, May 1995, p. 20.
Chicago Tribune, January 14, 1996, Sec. 13, p. 8.
Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1995, p. 5A; May 15, 1995, p. 5A.
Ebony, June 1988, p. 108.
Esquire, July 1991, p. 58.
Harper's Bazaar, July 1995, pp. 58-59.
Jet, March 6, 1995, p. 32; March 13, 1995, p. 53.
Nation, March 13, 1995, p. 332; October 30, 1995, pp. 494-500.
New York Times, February 20, 1995, p. A1; February 20, 1995, p. C8; February 21, 1995, p. A14; February 26, 1995, p. A20; February 26, 1995, p. E2.
New York Times Magazine, November 27, 1994, p. 68.
People, February 11, 1991, p. 45.
Time, February 27, 1995, p. 23.
U.S. News & World Report, March 6, 1995, p. 32. □
Myrlie Evers-Williams achieved national prominence as the chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp). She was narrowly elected to the post in 1995 as part of an effort to reform an organization rocked by scandal and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Evers-Williams was born March 17, 1933, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She became part of the modern civil rights movement through her marriage to Medgar Evers, who was the state field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP. Her world changed dramatically on June 12, 1963, when her husband was shot to death outside their home in Jackson, Mississippi. White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith was charged with the murder, but two trials in the 1960s ended in hung juries. After the second trial, Evers-Williams vowed to bring de la Beckwith to justice.
Following her husband's assassination, Evers-Williams assumed his position as NAACP field secretary. Then, in 1964, she decided to move with her three young children to Claremont, California, and begin a new life. In 1967, she published For Us the Living, a memoir of her life with her late husband. She earned a degree in sociology at Pomona College in 1968, and then became director of planning for the Claremont Colleges system.
In 1970, she ran for a seat in Congress in what was then the 24th congressional district in California. Though she lost the election, it was a turning point for Evers-Williams. She was publicly transformed from Mrs. Medgar Evers to Myrlie Evers. In the 1970s and 1980s, she worked in the corporate arena, serving as director of consumer affairs for the Atlantic Richfield Company. In 1976, she married Walter Williams, a California longshoreman and civil rights activist.
In 1987, Evers-Willams became the first African American woman to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. She and her husband moved to Bend, Oregon, in 1989.
"Never lose sight of your goals. we are living in a time when we must take into our hands our destinies and our futures."
When Mississippi prosecutors failed to try de la Beckwith a third time for the murder of Medgar Evers, Evers-Williams mounted a campaign to generate public opinion in favor of a retrial. When she was told that no transcripts of
the original trial were to be found, she produced an original that she had held in a safe deposit box since the 1960s. In 1994, her efforts succeeded, and de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 crime. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001. In 1996, Evers-Williams served as a consultant to the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, which recounts the story of the retrial and conviction of de la Beckwith. Actress Whoopi Goldberg portrays Evers-Williams in the movie.
Despite the many changes and activities in her life, Evers-Williams remained committed to the NAACP. Serving on the national board of directors in the 1990s, she observed firsthand the problems that were engulfing the once dominant civil rights organization. A growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. culminated in August 1994, when he was fired for committing more than $330,000 in NAACP funds, without the board's approval, to settle a sex discrimination suit filed against him. The focus then shifted to Chairman William F. Gibson, who was accused of misappropriating NAACP funds for personal use.
Evers-Williams was approached to challenge Gibson at the 1995 board election. She hesitated to run because her second husband was dying from prostate cancer. However, Walter Williams urged her to take up the fight. She was elected to the chair in February 1995, winning by a one-vote margin; Evers-Williams was the first woman elected to that position. Her husband died shortly after her election.
The precarious state of the NAACP soon became clear to Evers-Williams. Membership had declined from five hundred thousand to three hundred thousand, while the organization's debt had risen to over $4 million. Corporate support had also dropped, forcing severe staff reductions at the national headquarters in Baltimore.
Evers-Williams moved quickly to restore trust. The board hired an accounting firm to audit financial records and directed its attorney to seek restitution from Gibson. Evers-Williams renewed contact with financial contributors, crisscrossing the United States in search of support. By the end of 1995, she had substantially reduced the NAACP's debt. New programs were
started with the goal of reinvigorating the NAACP and attracting younger members. In December 1995, the board approved the appointment of Representative Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) as president and executive director, capping a frenetic year for Evers-Williams.
Evers-Williams served as chair of the NAACP until 1998. She then began work on the Medgar Evers Institute, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, which promotes civil rights and economic development. In 2003, the institute partnered with Oregon State University to establish a western regional office in Bend, home of Evers-Williams.
Evers-Williams continues to be a well-received speaker and author. In 1999, she published a memoir, titled Watch me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be, with Melinda Blau. She has also received numerous honorary degrees and awards including the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus Achievement Award, the NAACP's Image Award for Civil Rights, and the Woman of the Year Award from the state of California. In March 2003, Ever-Williams visited Mississippi in order to participate in a tribute by the Mississippi Legislature to honor the accomplishments of the late Medgar Evers and Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Allen, Jamie. February 15, 1999. "You Move Forward: Myrlie-Evers Williams Marches On." CNN.com: Book News. Available online at <www.cnn.com/books/news/9902/15/myrlie> (accessed July 2, 2003).
Evers-Williams, Myrlie, with Melinda Blau. 1999. Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be. Boston: Little, Brown.