Wednesday, December 27, 2017

By Emily Wagster Pettus

Myrlie Evers could have been bitter and left Mississippi forever after a white supremacist assassinated her husband, state NAACP leader Medgar Evers, outside the family's Jackson home in 1963.

Yet, as the state commemorated its bicentennial, Mrs. Evers gave a thoughtful and inspirational speech to dedicate two museums that tell the complex history of, as she intentionally said, “the state of my birth.”

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are two distinct entities under a single roof. They are in downtown Jackson, a short walk from the state Capitol.

Mrs. Evers is a Vicksburg native and is now 84. She said when she heard the concept of two museums, she wondered whether Mississippi was returning to “separate but equal.” The phrase was used by segregationists to promote schools that were separated by race and were, in reality, inherently unequal.

She said former Gov. William Winter helped her understand that one museum “is not complete without the other.”

She had privately toured the museums before they opened to the public Dec. 9—the day before Mississippi marked 200 years as the 20th state.

“I stand before you today saying I believe in the state of my birth, and that is something that I never thought that I would say,” said Mrs. Evers told more than 1,000 people at the dedication ceremony.

“But today I stand before you and I speak the truth,” she said. “In going through the museums, I had a better understanding of the state of Mississippi. And I thought I knew the state of my birth.

“Going through the museum of my history, I wept. Because I felt the blows. I felt the bullets. I felt the tears. I felt the cries,” she said. “But I also sensed the hope that dwelled in the hearts of all of those people.”

With her three young children, Mrs. Evers left Mississippi in the mid-1960s and moved to California, where she built a corporate career and remained involved in the push for justice. She married Walter Williams, a fellow civil rights activist, in 1976. They moved to Oregon in 1989 and she was widowed a second time when he died of cancer in 1995. Myrlie Evers-Williams was national chairwoman of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998.

For the museums' dedication, she was listed on the program simply as Myrlie Evers, and when she arrived for the ceremony, The Associated Press asked her preference for her name in news reports. “Just Evers today,” she said.

Moments before Mrs. Evers spoke at the public ceremony on a chilly morning outside the museums, President Donald Trump had toured the civil rights museum and spoken to a smaller audience of civil rights veterans, elected officials and other invited guests inside.

Mrs. Evers did not mention Trump in her speech. Rather, she recalled a conversation she and Medgar Evers had about why he put his own life on the line to fight racism and push for change.

“‘It's not just about me. It is not just about you, but it is about each and every one of us who live in this state and who embrace this country, the United States of America. Because regardless of race, creed or color, we are all Americans,”' she recalled him saying.

She said that, “We in America are still suffering from some of the same ills ... that we have over the years.”

But she also said: “If Mississippi can rise to the occasion, then the rest of the country should be able to do the same thing.”