Speaker has much to teach

Published 10:43 am Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Myrlie Evers-Williams. The name alone will be forever linked with civil rights struggles, challenges and achievements. She will be the featured speaker for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. program at the University of Montevallo Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. in Palmer Auditorium. The topic of her talk will be “Forging the Dream: Leadership by Action and Not by Design.”

Widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, she has never been content to rest on her late husband’s laurels. She garnered the national spotlight as the first woman elected board of directors chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was elected chairperson to lead the nation’s oldest civil rights organization in 1995 when controversy clouded its reputation. Based on her character and attitude, her election was a cause for renewed optimism among NAACP supporters.

In early 1998, Evers-Williams decided not to run for another term as NAACP chairperson and instead chose to pursue other projects. In particular, she started the Medgar Evers Institute to promote education, training and economic development.

Evers-Williams was born in Vicksburg, Miss., and was raised by her grandmother and an aunt. In 1950 she enrolled at the then all-black Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Lorman, Miss.

Starting in 1954, Evers-Williams worked full-time as field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi.

She served as her husband’s secretary in the Jackson office of the NAACP, and in that capacity, played a significant role in advancing the civil-rights cause. In June 1963, Medgar Evers was shot and killed as he entered his Jackson home.

His murder brought national attention to the evils of racism in the South, particularly in Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith was tried several times, but was not convicted of the murder until 1994. Although devastated personally by her loss, Evers-Williams became a symbol of courage as well as tragedy in the civil-rights movement. She and co-author William Peters wrote a biography of her late husband, “Us the Living.”

Her life has been the inspiration for two movies, “For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story” and “Ghosts of Mississippi.” Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg portrayed her in “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

Cynthia Shackelford is director of public relations for the University of Montevallo.