Myrlie Evers-Williams moves gingerly about the crowd, slowed by her 80-year-old knees. The University of Mississippi chancellor, who has invited her to speak at commencement exercises, takes her hand to lead her down a flight of stairs. Students, black and white, ask to pose for a photo with her as she makes her way to the stage. Her daughter, always nearby, is holding her purse. She is doted on.
Evers-Williams is here, she knows, as a stand-in for an era. What her name evokes in Mississippi — 50 years after her husband, Medgar, was gunned down in their driveway by an avowed racist — is a vivid image of the worst of Southern terrorism. And on the campus of Ole Miss, where she and Medgar fought for integration, she is here on this May morning as part of an ongoing dance of racial reconciliation.
“I don’t know what to say besides thank you for all you’ve done for our state,” says Kevin Cozart, a tall, white graduate student, taking her hand.
They are both dressed in cap and gown, giving the exchange an air of formality softened by helpings of Southern politeness.
“Who would have thought 50 years ago?” she says, thanking him for being so kind.
Evers-Williams, too, is tall. She wears her graying hair in a short Afro and stands straight as an arrow, broad shoulders back the way she was taught so many years ago when she was a shy little girl, forced by her grandmother to read the church announcements or recite a poem.
Unsolicited, the whites here, including a former governor and the university chancellor, will almost uniformly describe Evers-Williams in the same way — a woman who has every right in the world to be bitter but is not.
They mean this as a compliment, but it is a simplification, their image of her frozen on the day Myrlie Evers and her three children became the national face of black grief. She was 30 years old, her black face streaming with tears beneath a black hat, a grieving body cloaked in a black dress, white-gloved hands holding on to her weeping son. She was the first of the women who would become known as civil rights widows. Before Betty Shabazz in 1965 and Coretta Scott King in 1968, she conveyed such sadness that the nation was forced to face her anguish.
Fifty years later on the campus of Ole Miss, the description of Evers-Williams as long-suffering and forgiving is in one way patently false. More than any of the other civil rights widows, Myrlie Evers showed America her rage. She let the nation see her unfiltered emotion when two all-white juries refused to convict Medgar’s killer, during a time when black anger was not an acceptable display of emotion. She wrote a book and began it with this line: “Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband.”
Evers-Williams eventually saw to it that the shooter was brought to justice. Memories are never far, but with that justice came a transformation and transcendence of grief. So, too, did she rise above the tropes of widowhood that sought to define and limit her as a woman.
Before she addresses the Ole Miss commencement, Evers-Williams confesses that she has not decided what to say.
“Mrs. Evers-Williams, what’s in your heart?” Ole Miss Chancellor Daniel Jones asks. “You’ll say the right thing.”
‘The Evers woman’
In the Mississippi that Myrlie Beasley was born in, black women were not called “Mrs.” — an honorific reserved for white women. The last time she lived in the state, she was called “Myrlie” or “the Evers woman” in newspaper articles.
“It makes you realize a thousand different ways that white Southerners found to degrade African Americans,” says Jerry Mitchell, a journalist at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson who has known Evers-Williams since the 1980s.
Between 1882 and 1927, 517 African Americans were lynched in the state, the highest number in the nation for any state during that period. Later came the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally killed for the offense of whistling at a white woman, and civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, lynched by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. There are ghosts in Mississippi.
The state was a wretched place for a black girl born in 1933, but Myrlie Beasley did not know it. Raised by her Baptist churchgoing grandmother, who was part of the upper echelon of Vicksburg’s Negro society, little Myrlie started learning piano at age 4. Her aunt insisted that she listen exclusively to classical music. She was taught to “achieve, achieve, achieve.”