Myrlie Evers-Williams

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.

Further Reading on Myrlie Evers-Williams

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.