Myrlie Evers-Williams—Making Her Own History
The inauguration moment that most moved the author, multimedia journalist Mary C. Curtis, came early in the ceremony.
In the glow of Inauguration Day spectacle, anyone reading reports might think the news flash of the day – after the second inauguration of America’s first African American president, of course – was Beyonce’s lip-synch-gate. Did the beautiful performer have some help in her rendition of the national anthem? And, by the way, did you notice First Lady Michelle Obama’s bangs?
I can’t feel too superior. I weighed in on the bangs debate myself in the Washington Post, if only to say I really don’t care, nor could I work up any outrage over Beyonce’s musical choice when asked about it on a radio show.
It did surprise me that more was not made of another figure sharing the stage and holding her own with the president, someone’s whose history is also entwined in the red, white and blue flags fluttering throughout the crowd on the mall on that clear Washington day.
You could say that without the efforts of a Myrlie Evers-Williams and all she represents, a President Barack Obama would not have been possible in 2008 and beyond.
“One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes to today’s expression of a more perfect union,” said the first laywoman to give an invocation at a presidential inauguration. “We ask, too, Almighty, that where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddle by pangs of despair we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance. And that the vision of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us.”
At 79, Evers-Williams looked beautiful and strong. Her voice rang out clearly. She has been on the public stage since her husband Medgar Evers was murdered in front of their Mississippi home, also 50 years ago, for his work as field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
But before and since, Evers-Williams has served on the front lines, too. She worked with her husband to end racial segregation in schools and other public facilities, to win the voting rights that she, World War II veteran Medgar Evers and all other Americans deserved. She kept her husband’s case alive for 30 years until his killer was brought to justice.
Though one image of her, as grieving widow of a civil rights warrior, has been frozen, Evers-Williams never stopped. Her list of accomplishments – for African Americans, for women, for all Americans – is long and illustrious.
In 1971, she was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, as its history states, “the only national organization dedicated exclusively to increasing women's participation in all areas of political and public life.” As chairperson of the NAACP in the 1990s, she helped the venerable organization regain its financial stability.
Awards and accolades have followed this speaker, author and activist, a Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year and winner of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal; she established the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, to insure we never forget progress is never won without great struggle and sacrifice, something she knows only too well.
President Obama remembered. The witness of Myrlie Evers-Williams was a reminder of how far the United States has come in such a short time and, in her continuing work, how far we have to go.
On Inauguration Day, she prayed: “For every mountain you gave us the strength to climb. Your grace is pleaded to continue that climb for America and the world. We now stand beneath the shadow of the nation’s Capitol whose golden dome reflects the unity and democracy of one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
Not to take anything away from the president, but of all the speakers that day, my heart moved at the sight and sound of Evers-Williams, speaking of veterans who have paid the price, in different ways, including Medgar Evers buried just a few miles from her address, at Arlington National Cemetery.
I was stirred by the words and example of Myrlie Evers-Williams and her very American tale, one that is still being written. The media and the rest of us are, as always, looking for the new story, the gossip and the chatter, whether it be Michelle’s latest look or a manufactured singing mystery. Let’s face it. That’s what gets the clicks and the views our livelihoods depend on.
But can’t there be some room made for a great historical yarn, well told, with a heroine more-than-worthy of the headlines?
Myrlie Evers-Williams’ story is an amazing one, still being written, in front of the millions who tuned in and listened. It’s one I had to write because of its significance and because, sadly, not enough others did.
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