A leading civil rights activist, Myrlie Evers-Williams held prominent roles in the public and private sector including chair of NAACP's board of directors from 1995 to 1998. A phenomenal woman of great strength and courage, her dedication to civil rights and equality is exemplified by her activism and ability to link together business, government, and social issues to further human rights and equality.
Fighting for freedom in Mississippi
A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mrs. Evers-Williams was an honor student at Alcorn A & M College, Lorman, Mississippi, where she met and married another outstanding student, Medgar Evers. They moved to historic Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where they embarked on business careers with Magnolia Mutual Life Insurance Company. Business responsibilities demanded extensive travel in the Delta where they witnessed the burden of poverty and injustice imposed on their people. Determined to make positive changes in that society, both Medgar and Myrlie opened and managed the first NAACP Mississippi State Office. They lived under constant threats as they worked for voting rights, economic stability, fair housing, equal education, equal justice, and dignity
The couple's high-profile activism work, including investigating lynchings and organizing boycotts, made them targets for racist detractors. After several attempts on his life, Medgar Evers was shot and killed after coming home from work in June 1963. The Ku Klux Klan member who killed him, Byron De La Beckwith, was tried twice but both all-white juries deadlocked on his guilt. Evers-Williams would finally see justice for her husband's murder three decades later when De La Beckwith was found guilty and sent to prison when he was in his 70s.
In 1967, four years after her husband's death, Myrlie Evers-Williams moved to California with her three children and earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Pomona College. That year, she published a chronicle of her late husband's life and work, For Us, the Living. In 1976, she married civil rights activist Walter Williams.
After helping to put NAACP on firm financial footing, Evers-Williams stepped down and turned her efforts to establishing the Medgar Evers Institute to preserve her husband's legacy in Jackson, Mississippi.
From 1968 to 1970, she took a job in university administration, serving as a planning director at Claremont Colleges. Evers-Williams later held prominent positions in the corporate world, serving as vice-president at a New York-based advertising firm and as a community affairs executive at a Los Angeles oil company. In 1987, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley appointed her the first Black female commissioner to the Board of Public Works, a position she held for eight years.
Back at NAACP
In the 1990s, Myrlie Evers-Williams joined the NAACP board of directors, and in 1995, ran for chair of the board. At the time, the organization was experiencing a financial squeeze. Evers-Williams spearheaded efforts to put NAACP on firm financial footing.
Saying she had successfully completed her mission, she stepped down after three years and turned her efforts to establishing the Medgar Evers Institute to preserve her husband's legacy in Jackson, Mississippi.
Establishing a legacy
Soon after leaving the NAACP board of directors, she published her autobiography Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be (1999). She also edited a book based on her husband's writing The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (2005).
Evers-Williams has received many other honors over the course of her life, including seven honorary doctorates. She was named "Woman of the Year" in 1998 by Ms. Magazine and Ebony magazine named her one of the "100 Most Fascinating Black Women of the 20th Century." Whoopi Goldberg played Evers-Williams in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi based on the Medgar Evers murder and the 1994 trial that brought his murderer to justice.
In January 2013, Evers-Williams delivered the invocation at Barack Obama's second presidential inauguration, becoming the first woman and first non-clergy member to perform the prayer.
Her children and six grandchildren remain her strongest supporters in her continued fight to secure equal rights for all people, and to preserve those rights for future generations.