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How Myrlie Evers has forged her own path as a civil rights activist

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and authors like Myrlie Evers that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

When people tell Myrlie Evers’ story, they often begin on June 12, 1963.

That night, her husband, civil rights icon Medgar Evers, was murdered outside their home in Jackson, Mississippi.

It was around the height of the civil rights movement in the segregated, Jim Crow South, roughly two years before Bloody Sunday in Selma and about five years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis.

A white supremacist fired the shot that killed Evers, a World War II veteran who was working as a field secretary for the NAACP, organizing voter registration drives and boycotts against local businesses.

Myrlie Evers’ husband, Medgar Evers was Mississippi’s first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He  was assassinated on June 12, 1963 in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss. home.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Myrlie Evers’ husband, Medgar Evers was Mississippi’s first field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He  was assassinated on June 12, 1963 in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss. home. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Credit: Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute

Credit: Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

"Medgar was on the forefront, and we knew that his life was endangered," Myrlie Evers said in a 2018 interview.

But, in conversations before that night, he had asked her to soldier on should his life cut short, to take care of their three young children.

She’s has done that, and so much more.

“I have carried his memory forth, and I continue to do so to this day,” she said.

Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams pays tribute to her friend, Coretta Scott King, during the Salute to Greatness Awards Dinner, held at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, on January 13, 2007. (Mikki K. Harris /AJC staff)
Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams pays tribute to her friend, Coretta Scott King, during the Salute to Greatness Awards Dinner, held at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, on January 13, 2007. (Mikki K. Harris /AJC staff)

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For decades, stories of civil rights in America have centered around the men who made up the movement. However, the women who were standing next to them, shoulder to shoulder, are sometimes forgotten — women like Coretta Scott King, Juanita Abernathy and Myrlie Evers. They, too, carried the torch for justice, both during their husbands' lives and well beyond.
Evers' own activism began long before the night her husband was killed and has continued for the more than 55 years since.

She was born Myrlie Louise Beasley on March 17, 1933. A native daughter of Vicksburg, Mississippi, she had been pushed toward greatness from a young age.

She recalls her grandmother telling her as a child to "rise above the norm" and to "always achieve the highest goal that you can reach."

After moving to California following Medgar’s death, Evers was among the first African American women to run for Congress. She lost that election, but eventually became the first black woman commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works.

In the mid-1990s, Evers joined the board of the NAACP – the same organization her husband had championed decades earlier.

At that time, the organization was riddled with scandal and financial problems.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, chair of the NAACP, speaking to the UAW convention in June 1995. UAW president Bieber at right. (AP Photo/File)
Myrlie Evers-Williams, chair of the NAACP, speaking to the UAW convention in June 1995. UAW president Bieber at right. (AP Photo/File)

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Still, Evers decided to run to be chair of the board. She recalls being told by some men that she wasn’t qualified.

But Evers was determined to not let any obstacle obstruct her work: not her race, marital status or gender.

"I was told when I ran for chairman of the NAACP, 'We will never allow that to happen because a woman should not be at the helm of organizations such as that,'" she said in 2012. "And I said, but you don't know me, do you? Move. Because I'm coming through."

She was elected to the seat by just one vote. As chairwoman, Evers helped fight patriarchy in the organization and to rebuild its reputation. She’s met with multiple presidents at the White House and delivered the invocation at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

Investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell – whose work helped lead to a conviction in Medgar Evers’ murder – said that, when he thinks of Myrlie, he thinks of “grace.”

“I think Myrlie will always be remembered as a great representative for Mississippi, for the civil rights movement, for women, for African Americans, for the strength and courage and grace,” Mitchell said.

Meridian Mayor Percy Bland, left, holds hands with civil rights activist and widow of civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Dave Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman during a ceremony at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., Sunday, June 15, 2014. The commemorative service was for Goodman and two other civil rights workers killed in Neshoba County for their voter registration work among blacks in then segregationist Mississippi. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Meridian Mayor Percy Bland, left, holds hands with civil rights activist and widow of civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and Dave Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman during a ceremony at the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., Sunday, June 15, 2014. The commemorative service was for Goodman and two other civil rights workers killed in Neshoba County for their voter registration work among blacks in then segregationist Mississippi. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Credit: Rogelio V. Solis

Credit: Rogelio V. Solis

»RELATED: Mississippi's Ida B. Wells: Journalism Giant

In addition to her activism, Evers is the author of several books, a frequent lecturer and a political leader. An accomplished singer, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall.

At 86 years old, she continues to work on behalf of civil rights. At times, it's discouraging. In 2018, Evers told Joy Reid in a TV interview that she was "beyond horrified" by the state of the country and its leadership.

She says she is more motivated to speak out now than she has ever been.

She established the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, with the “the mission of championing civil rights with a focus on history, education and reconciliation.”

In 2017, the home where Medgar was killed was designated a National Historic Landmark.

“I fight furiously that he will be remembered in history for all that he did and all that he gave,” she said.

She has ensured that Medgar Evers’ name will be remembered. And many would say she’s also cemented her own rightful place in history.

"I am more than just the widow of Medgar Evers," she said in 2013. "I am my own person whose circumstances were difficult, but I welcome all of the challenges and changes of being Myrlie Evers."

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.