Among the veterans of the civil rights movement, few are more revered than Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, Mississippi's first NAACP field secretary. Medgar was gunned down in his driveway on June 12, 1963.
A year after his death, Myrlie and their three children moved to Los Angeles, where she became a prominent activist as well as protector of Medgar's legacy. There, she met Walter Williams, a longshoreman and union activist. They were married in 1976. He died of cancer in 1995. Two years ago, she came home to Mississippi. (Related: "Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi Arouses Hope—and Distrust.")
Evers-Williams talked to National Geographic from her office at the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson, where this week veterans of the civil rights movement are gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the campaign to register black voters in Mississippi.
In a wide-ranging and candid conversation, she talks about how she met the love of her life, how she overcame hatred, confronting Medgar's ghost in a mystical visit, and her surprising reaction to viewing the 1917 seven-shot Enfield rifle fired by the Klansman who killed him.
What was it like to move back to Mississippi?
It has been a long journey from my feelings of anger, bitterness, hatred, deep hatred that I felt for the state of Mississippi—and for most Caucasians—to reach the point where I am today. I'm absolutely amazed at the transformation that I am making. I don't understand it. It's strong enough in me to keep moving forward.
How did you feel about your home state?
All along the way, I had this mixed feeling about Mississippi being home and Mississippi representing the loss of the love of my life.
You and Medgar, eight years your senior, attended the black land-grant college, Alcorn State University. How did you meet?
I met Medgar the first hour of the first day I was on campus. He was on the football team. We freshman girls heard all these guys coming up in their football uniforms to look at the freshman girls. I told Medgar it was almost as though we were slaves on the block.
We saw each other off and on, but he never made a pass. He always talked about current events and the need to register and vote. I remember thinking: Who is this character? I was 16. One day, he was going on about world affairs, and he said to me, "You're going to be the mother of my children." I was stunned beyond belief.
You worked together after you married. What was it like?
I was his secretary. We always called each other Mr. Evers, Mrs. Evers. We never crossed that line until it was time to go home.
It sounds like Medgar was more of an optimist than you were.
Medgar said repeatedly in his speeches, and certainly during the last year of his life, "This is the land of my birth. I believe in what is possible for the state of Mississippi. I believe that it will be one of the best places to live in America when we have solved the race problem." I said to him, "You are out of your mind." I'm a native Mississippian. I was born in Vicksburg. "Things will never change in Mississippi. You are wasting your time. And I fear for your life." He would look at me with an uncomfortable stare, and he would say: "You will see."
Were you involved in Freedom Summer in 1964?
No. I had moved to California. I left Mississippi mainly because it was too difficult for my children and me to remain in our home. Our eldest son [Darrell] reached a point where he would barely talk. He did not eat well. His school fell off, his grades. Reena would cry a lot, and our youngest [James], who was 3, had this weird stare on his face. I had to go.
You recently attended a ceremony in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the three civil rights workers who were killed 50 years ago and buried in an earthen dam. How was that?
It is interesting. One thing I do recall is, when Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney went missing, I was speaking at an NAACP convention. I recall saying: "We will not find them alive."
How did you meet your second husband, Walter Williams?
I met him at a meeting that [Los Angeles] Mayor Tom Bradley called in Watts. Walter was a real admirer of Medgar, and he said: "I saw you the day after Medgar was killed. You were being interviewed by Dan Rather in your backyard, and I prayed that I may be able to help you." And my remark afterward was: "Be careful what you pray for; you may get it."
Have you been back to your and Medgar's house?
My three children and I signed the deed over to Tougaloo College. It's been upgraded and is now a museum. I find myself going back there, not on my own, but because people ask me to take them through. I don't go back often. I still see Medgar's blood. I don't know if it's some other stain or not, but I could not get that blood up.
Did you ever return to Mississippi after moving away?
I would come back every year to see friends and a few relatives. In and out. Glad to come in for a brief moment and delighted to leave, feeling that things would never change.
How did you come to give Medgar's papers to the state of Mississippi?
I tried desperately to get Medgar to keep a diary. He said, "I don't have time." But he would go into our very small bathroom and write, throw what he didn't want in the trash can. And I would always follow him and take out notes that he had written. And I kept them.
Years later, Governor [William] Winter asked me, would I consider making those public? They all knew I did not trust them, that it was difficult for me to let go of those personal things. And I finally gave in. I have to give Governor Winter the credit. Because I trusted him, no one else. There was something about the firmness, the gentleness, the sincerity of that man that made me think it might be a good place.
In a sense, it was like Medgar coming home again. I personally wanted people throughout the country—and certainly here in Mississippi and certainly young people—to have access to his memories, the things that he collected. I wanted a safe place for his papers, and I also wanted a place where people could come and learn more about him.
One other thing made me seriously think about donating Medgar's papers. At that time, I lived in Bend, [in rural eastern] Oregon. We lived in a fire zone. My fear of fire overcame my anxiety in giving the papers to Mississippi. Because to have a fire come along and destroy all of that would have been—I'm not sure I could have recovered from that.
How did you end up in Bend?
Walter thought I had a schedule that was a killer and said let's look for someplace to have a retreat. We walked in, and there was this gorgeous mountain range. We put in a bid for the house right then.
Did you think a civil rights museum would be built in Mississippi?
Yes, but not in my lifetime.
Do you have any apprehensions that the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will not get it right?
I don't think you ever completely erase the negative feelings of hatred and prejudice and racism. That's a part of the human makeup. But to be able to have documents and photos, tapes, and everything else we can get our hands on to tell the story for generations yet to come will be one of the most valuable gifts that we can work together to have in the state of Mississippi.
When you spoke at the ground-breaking, you were pretty blunt.
I said that we must not forget the past and the museums will take us back into time. However, just below us is the fairgrounds, where young and old who were demonstrating for justice and equality were placed behind those wire fences. They became a concentration camp. Food and water was brought in, in these big galvanized tubs by police, and they spit in the water.
A couple people said to me, "You really shouldn't have said that." I said, "No way I could not have said it."
Did that shock people?
It shocked many people, but those who know me were not shocked at all. I am 81 years old. I don't have time to play games. I see no benefit in being wishy-washy.
You have said you've seen a vision of Medgar in recent years. Describe that.
I was seated in a chair, and I looked over to my left side and there was Medgar, as big, life-sized, walking past me. I remember thinking: Why are you walking past me and you are not even looking at me? And he said, "I'm out of here." I was furious with him: "You can't do this; you haven't even turned around and looked at me." But it was peaceful. It's done. It was, "Okay, you go on, you're out of here. I'm still tough. And like you told me, I'm stronger than I think I am.'"
The rifle that killed Medgar will be displayed at the museum. What was it like to see it?
There was an exhibit and reception at Archives and History and I decided to go. I was proud to see the copy of Medgar's letter to the governor, applying for admission to Ole Miss. And the rejection letter. I started toward a little anteroom, and someone said, "I don't think you should go in there." And I stopped in my tracks, because there on a pedestal in plexiglass was the rifle. It's very difficult for me to explain what I felt. It wasn't panic. It wasn't anger. It wasn't hatred. I don't know what it was. It just stopped me.
Then what happened?
I saw that rifle in three parts. The first part was the trigger, which represented the hatred that was used to pull the trigger. Midway along the rifle, I could see Medgar's body face-down. And it represented this man who loved his people, who loved his state, who loved his country, and someone who had given his all and it was over. As I saw that, I looked at the end of the rifle and I could literally see the fire coming out of it. It is so interesting how your mind can play these tricks on you. I saw the fire as representing the future.
The force of the future. I hope I am right.
Do you plan to turn your papers over to the museum?
I hope the state and I can agree about how my papers will be used because it's not about being a widow. It's about being a woman in today's society and all of the issues that we still have. My papers, I hope, will encourage everyone to know about the struggles that any person can have in losing someone. That you don't stop. You keep going. You find ways to move forward. I so cherish people's memory of Medgar and what he did. But you know, I'm still standing.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.