It's kind of incredible that today will mark the first time that a woman delivers a prayer at a presidential inauguration. But Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and a civil rights organizer in her own right, is the perfect woman for the job, especially for an inauguration coinciding with Martin Luther King Day.
Raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Evers-Williams met Medgar Evers, an upperclassman, Army veteran, and football player on her first day of college at Alcorn A&M, and they married the following year. Medgar was already a member of the NAACP and helped raise Myrlie's consciousness and eschew white standards of beauty:
"He's the one who told me to stop biting my bottom lip and to be proud of my large lips.... It was he who told me to stop straightening my hair and be proud of my kinky hair. It was Medgar who told me to stop using bleach on my face to be lighter and to be proud of my Blackness."
In 1954, Medgar became the Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP and Myrlie worked as his secretary. As a team they organized voter registration drives and civil rights demonstrations and fought to desegregate schools. They both knew the dangers they faced for their work. Mrylie and Medgar spoke in code over the phone and trained their children to dive to the ground if they heard strange noises (in case there were snipers).
"We lived with death as a constant companion 24 hours a day.... Medgar knew what he was doing, and he knew what the risks were. He just decided that he had to do what he had to do. But I knew at some point in time he would be taken from me.... It was a time when we never knew if we would see each other again when he left home - so we had an agreement with each other that we would never part in anger."
When their house was firebombed in May 1963 while Medgar was away, Myrlie put out the flames with a garden hose. Nearly 50 years ago, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers was shot to death in front of his home by a white supremacist named Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith was arrested and brought to trial but two all-white juries were unable to reach a verdict. Myrlie fought to bring her husband's killer to justice for three decades and Beckwith was finally arrested again and convicted by a multi-racial jury in 1994.
After her husband's death, Evers-Williams moved her family to California, graduated from Pomona College, ran for Congress, and married a civil rights and labor activist Walter Williams. Despite death threats she remained active in the NAACP and succesfully ran for the position of NAACP chairperson in 1995. Sadly, her second husband died only a few days after she won. During her tenure, Myrlie was able to save the NAACP financially and restore its credibility. After that Evers-Williams established the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, wrote an autobiography Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be (1999), and co-edited The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero's Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (2005).
Evers-Williams says she's "honored" to be speaking at the President's inauguration in Washington DC. Fifty years ago, She was scheduled to speak in at Martin Luther King's March on Washington, but was too upset about her husband's death months before. Last week, on Politics Nation, she told Al Sharpton, "For years I thought, I'll never be able to do anything like that again–and here we are 50 years later, I've been asked to deliver the invocation.... I'm just so appreciative, so thankful.... I never imagined that this would happen in my wildest dreams."
Evers-Williams has called the election of a Black president a a dream come true, but knows there is still work to be done when it comes to civil rights, especially voting rights. .
"Even though there were so many who fought for the right to vote, all we have to do is look back on what happened a couple months ago [during the election], and all those things that were done to make it difficult, particularly for minorities to register and vote.... We are passed the point where we have to count the number of beans in a jar, we are passed the point where we have to work so hard to pay three dollars for a poll tax, but it sends a message to America that even though we have moved forward, be aware and guard your rights, because there are different methods of disenfranchisement."
Sharpton asked Myrlie what advice Medgar would give her about the invocation were he alive today. She responded by recalling an exchange she had with Medgar: "I said ‘Medgar. I can't make it without you. I'm not strong enough.' And he said, ‘You are. You must believe in yourself. You will be all right.'"