Myrlie Evers Williams

Bob Dylan

Myrlie Evers-Williams (1933- ) was born Myrlie Beasley in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She attended Alcorn A&M College and there met her husband, Medgar Evers. The couple married in 1951. In 1954, she became secretary to her husband at the Mississippi office of the NAACP. As she and her family became more visible in the fight for civil rights in Mississippi, they became targets of violence. In 1962, their home was firebombed in response to a boycott Medgar had organized against white merchants. The following year on June 12, Medgar was gunned down in his driveway after returning home late in the evening. After Medgar’s murder, Myrlie and her children moved to Claremont, California, where she enrolled at Pomona College and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. In 1975 she married Walter Williams and remained with him until his death in 1995 of prostate cancer. In 1988 she became the first black woman to be named to the Los Angeles Board of Public Works, and she oversaw a budget of nearly one billion dollars.

After her husband’s accused assassin was freed after two trials in 1964 that ended in hung juries, Myrlie tried to keep the case alive and looked for opportunities to re-prosecute the killer, Byron De La Beckwith. Finally, in 1994, a third trial ended in his conviction. He was sent to prison and died there in 1991. In 1995, Myrlie became the first woman to chair the NAACP. She remained in that position until 1998. She is the author of two books—the first as Mrs. Medgar Evers, with William Peters, For Us, the Living (New York: Doubleday, 1967), and later, Myrlie Evers-Williams, with Melinda Blau, Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the way to Becoming the Woman I was meant to Be (Boston: Little Bown and Co., 1999).

As a NAACP official in Mississippi, Medgar Evers helped find witnesses for the prosecution in the Emmett Till slaying. The excerpt below is from For us the Living, pp. 170-174.
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[170]

Even before that predictable end, almost as though the state of Mississippi had officially declared an open season on Negroes, murderers struck again. This time the victim was a fourteen-year-old Negro boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, visiting his uncle in the Mississippi Delta. The purported reason for the killing, widely disseminated by the press, was that Till had asked for a date with a married white woman seven years his senior.

There were, of course, embellishments on this theme, though no one ever charged the youth with more than a lewd suggestion or a “wolf whistle.” But because of the overtones of sex, by which Mississippi often justifies its use of violence against male Negroes, it could have been just another Mississippi lynching. It wasn’t. This one somehow struck a spark of indignation that ignited protests around the world. Kidnaped forcibly in the middle of the night, pistol-whipped, stripped naked, shot through the head with a .45-caliber Colt automatic, barb-wired to a seventy-four-pound cotton gin fan, and dumped into twenty feet of water

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in the Tallahatchie River, young Emmett Till became in death what he could never have been in life: a rallying cry and a cause.

Two white men were arrested for the sadistic murder: J. W. Milam, thirty-six, and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, twenty-four. Both were identified as the men who took young Till at gun-point from his uncle’s home. Both admitted having taken him but only for the purpose frightening him. Indicted and tried for murder in Sumner, Mississippi, they were acquitted by an all-white jury that deliberated one hour and seven minutes. Two months later a grand jury in Greenwood refused even to indict them for the abduction both had publicly admitted. Two months after that, in case anyone was still in doubt, reporter William Bradford Huie, in an article in Look, quoted both men on the exact details of the murder they now calmly described. Acquitted once, they could not, of course, be tried again.

These were sensational climaxes to a sensational murder, but, even before they were reached, the Till case attracted the kind of world and national attention Medgar had brooded about those many months before when he had speculated privately about a Mississippi Mau Mau. For weeks before the murder trial, newsmen from all over the country probed the psyche of the Delta, interviewing whites and Negroes, turning up some of the conditions of the benighted area. Angry and frustrated over this particularly vicious killing, Medgar made it his mission to see that word of it was spread as widely and accurately as possible. Publicizing the crime and the subsequent defeat of justice became a major NAACP effort.

Those were weeks of frenzied activity, weeks of special danger, for Medgar made many trips to the Delta, investigating, questioning, searching out witnesses before they could

[172]

be frightened into silence. There were wild night drives to Memphis, where witnesses were put on planes for safer places until their presence would be needed at the trial. And, more than once, there were chases along the long, straight, unlighted highways that led from the Delta back to Jackson.

Medgar was by this time well known throughout the state, and his car was often sighted by police and sheriff’s men minutes after he entered a Delta county. Frequently he was followed throughout his trips around the Delta. He had already begun to make it a practice to return to Jackson each night if possible, as much for the safety of the people he would otherwise have stayed with as for himself. Several times, when he started back after dark, he had to jam the accelerator to the floorboard to “shake the car’s tail,” as he put it, in the faces of anonymous pursuers.

Medgar never pretended he wasn’t frightened at such experiences, though he often concealed the details from me. Usually I found out later, when the subject came up at the office with someone else or when a friend who had been with him let the secret drop. There was no hiding the extra precautions he sometimes took. When Emmett Till’s body was found, Medgar and Amzie Moore, an NAACP leader from Cleveland, Mississipi, set off from our house one morning with Ruby Hurley, down from Birmingham, to investigate. All of them were dressed in overalls and beat-up shoes, with Mrs. Hurley wearing a red bandana over her head. To complete the disguise, Amzie had borrowed a car with license plates from a Delta county. Watching them leave, knowing the tension and hate that gripped the Delta, I lived through the day in a daze of fear until their safe return that night.

While Medgar worked in the Delta I was swamped at

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the office with telephone calls from the press, from friends, from unknown Negroes who wanted to know what was happening. I had to buy and read six or seven newspapers a day, clipping every word about the Till case for our own files and for the national office in New York. If Medgar’s name had been mentioned in one of the papers, I could anticipate a spate of obscene and abusive telephone calls.

Looking back, I know that from that time on I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed. It was like a physical presence inside me, now subdued, now alive and aching, a parasite of terror that woke to remind me of its existence whenever things were particularly bad. Medgar would leave the house for one of his trips to the Delta, and I could feel my stomach contract in cold fear that I would never see him again. When he was home, when he spent a whole day in the office, it was like a reprieve, for I somehow had the absurd idea that nothing could happen to him if we were together. It was about this time that I began trying to live each day for itself, to count as special blessings those days when I knew he was in no special danger. It is a philosophy more easily preached than practiced, but I made a thousand conscious attempts to live it in the years that followed, knowing that the only alternative was some kind of breakdown.

I never completely understood what it was that made the murder of Emmett Till so different from the ones that had preceded it. In part, I suppose it was his youth. Medgar was convinced that the existence of our office in Jackson and the enormous efforts of the NAACP to get out the news made a tremendous difference. Whatever the answer, it was the murder of this fourteen-year-old out-of-state visitor that touched off the world-wide clamor and cast the glare of a world spotlight on Mississippi’s racism. Ironically,

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the deaths of George Lee and Lamar Smith, both directly connected with the struggle for civil rights, had caused nothing like the public attention attracted by the Till case.

And perhaps that was the explanation. George Lee and Lamar Smith had been murdered for doing what everyone knew Negroes were murdered for doing. Neither murder had the shock effect of the brutal slaying of a fourteen-year-old boy who had certainly done nothing more than act fresh. The Till case, in a way, was the story in microcosm of every Negro in Mississippi. For it was the proof that even youth was no defense against the ultimate terror, that lynching was still the final means by which white supremacy would be upheld, that whites could still murder Negroes with impunity, and that the upper- and middle-class white people of the state would uphold such killings through their police and newspapers and courts of law. It was the proof that Mississippi had no intention of changing its ways, that no Negro’s life was really safe, and that the federal government was either powerless, as it claimed, or simply unwilling to step in to erase this blot on the nation’s reputation for decency and justice. It was the proof, if proof were needed, that there would be no real change in Mississippi until the rest of the country decided that change there must be and then forced it.

Emmett Till