Categoria: David Allen Column

Civil Rights Icon Myrlie Evers, 90, Lauded In Claremont As ‘inspiration To Us All’

The three young children had stayed up late to greet their father when he got home from work. “There’s Daddy, there’s Daddy,” they exclaimed when they saw his car pull into the driveway. Then they flattened to the floor as shots rang out.

Outside, they rushed to their father’s prone form. “Get up, Daddy, get up,” they cried.

He was Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist, and this was Jackson, Mississippi on June 12, 1963.

“I rushed to the door,” his wife, Myrlie, recalled the other night, “and found a nightmare there.”

The threats against her husband’s life had been realized in the form of fatal gunshots from an assailant who fired from the bushes and escaped. It took three decades for White supremacist Byron De La Beckwith to be convicted of Evers’ murder.

You may know the story from “Ghosts of Mississippi,” the 1996 drama. Or you may have first learned of Evers as I did, from hearing the Bob Dylan song “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” recorded only weeks after Evers’ assassination:

“Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught/They lowered him down as a king.”

The widow and her children met JFK, soon to be gunned down himself. The next year, resolving to leave Mississippi and return to college, she relocated her children — Van, Darrell and Reena — to Claremont.

Nearly 60 years later, Myrlie Evers-Williams is still around. Wednesday night, Pomona College hosted a tribute at Bridges Auditorium for their class of 1968 alumna.

The event celebrated Evers-Williams’ 90th birthday as well as her recent gift to the college of her archives, some 250 linear feet of photos, documents and ephemera. Maybe no one told her that on birthdays you’re supposed to receive gifts, not give them.

People examine mementos from Myrlie Evers-Williams’ life at Pomona College on Wednesday before an event in her honor. (Photo by Jeffrey T. Hing/Pomona College) In the Bridges lobby, glass cases had themes: “Civil Rights Advocate,” “Wife and Mother,” “Pomona College Student,” “Civic Leader” and more. There were photos, copies of speeches, cover stories from Ebony and Jet, and other memorabilia, even a hard hat from her tenure on L.A.’s Board of Public Works.

(Evidently she rarely threw anything away. If her kids collected comic books or baseball cards, they might be rich today.)

Inside the stately 1932 auditorium, photos from the collection were projected on a half-dozen screens at the rear of the stage. Among them were pictures of her with JFK, with RFK, with this column’s friend Jimmy Carter and with Barack Obama, for whom she delivered the invocation at his second inauguration.

It was a night of warm tributes.

Married at 18, widowed at 30, “she was nearly twice the age of some of her classmates,” Gabrielle Starr, the college’s president, said. “Not hanging on to her identity as a widow, she became a leader in her own right.”

Evers in 1976 married Walter Williams in a ceremony at Pomona College. He died of cancer  in 1995.

Represented onstage Wednesday were the NAACP, which she once led; the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta; and the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute of Mississippi, which has the archives from the first part of her life. Two young women from the college’s Black Student Union said Evers-Williams paved the way for students like themselves.

Video messages were shown. “You are loved and respected,” the Smithsonian Institution’s Lonnie Bunch III said. Whoopi Goldberg, who played Evers-Williams in “Ghosts of Mississippi,” promised a visit.

And President Joe Biden, with wife Jill, recorded one too. “Your grace, your courage, your abiding commitment to American possibilities has inspired the entire nation,” the president said. “Thank you for answering hate with love,” the first lady said.

Myrlie Evers-Williams is seen on a video screen from her front-row seat, reacting to the reading of a letter to her from Barack and Michelle Obama, which appears in closed captioning, at Bridges Auditorium on Wednesday. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) In a letter read aloud by Starr, Obama and wife Michelle wrote: “Over the course of 90 years, you have changed our country for the better. Often in the face of enormous obstacles. Your tireless work fighting for civil rights is an inspiration to us all.”

Melissa Givens and Genevieve Lee provided music. Reena Evers-Everette, one of Evers’ children, called her “not only an incredible icon but an incredible mother.”

At the conclusion, Evers-Williams was helped from her chair in the front row into a tall chair facing the audience and given a microphone. She reflected on her life, particularly the parts relating to Pomona College and her move west.

“We were welcomed by Claremont. Or at least by most of Claremont,” she said wryly, drawing rueful chuckles from the audience.

Myrlie Evers-Williams speaks to the audience at the close of her tribute event Wednesday at Pomona College’s Bridges Auditorium. “I have been blessed all my life,” she said. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) In her 1999 memoir, “Watch Me Fly,” she said hers was only the second Black family in the “lily-white” community. After they moved into their home on Northwestern Drive, she wrote, the couple next door immediately put their home up for sale, and one woman at a church recoiled from her hand.

However, “most of the people in Claremont overextended themselves in welcoming us,” bringing by a month’s worth of casseroles and asking how they could help, she wrote.

In her remarks Wednesday, Evers-Williams said that as she juggled college coursework, single parenthood and grief, she often felt as if she were drowning.

“How could I study,” she said, “with nightmares every night?”

But her memories of Medgar gave her strength. Encouragement from professors and classmates kept her going. She found joy in learning, in meeting new people, in meeting new challenges.

“I am so blessed today. I have been blessed all my life,” Evers-Williams said. “I have not been in this world one day without love. That is a true blessing, my friends.”

She answered hate with love. That lesson may be yet another gift from her to us.

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, gifts you might wish to return. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

Cheech Marin Is Frequent Visitor To Riverside And Namesake Art Museum

Cheech Marin is a regular visitor to the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside, and not just because he gets in free.

How often has he been back since the June 2022 opening of the center, which is largely made up of his personal art collection?

“Six, seven times,” Marin tells me. “Whenever they summon me to appear. I always try to stop in on my way to Joshua Tree, where I live half the time.”

We were speaking Jan. 26 at the Riverside Convention Center a few minutes before he went onstage to accept the Riverside Hero Award. He remembers me from our conversation last June during his publicity blitz. He gets my hero award too.

Marin has a busy schedule, with roles in two high-profile movies, “Shotgun Wedding” and “Champions.” His visits to Riverside are not pop-ins to shake a few hands and wave goodbye. When he’s in town, his time is scheduled for maximum effect.

“He’s usually around for a day, two days, even three days,” says Maria Esther Fernández, the museum’s artistic director, by phone a few days later.

Cheech Marin stands before a lenticular artwork by brothers Einar and Jamex de la Torre, a permanent feature at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture. (Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) Marin might meet with donors, participate in a golf tournament or give interviews to L.A. or national media about the museum. Internal discussions take place about programming, future exhibitions or initiatives in the works. During the Festival of Lights downtown, there were “Meet Cheech” events.

At most two months have elapsed between visits, while between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Marin was in Riverside three times in succession. A contact of mine at City Hall has bumped into the actor on the street more than once and exchanged hellos.

During the holidays, Marin brought some of his extended family, 27 people in all, to tour the museum that bears his name.

“It was a very emotional kind of deal. A couple of family members had died in the interim,” reflects Marin. “Someone said, ‘I wish they could have been here’ and I said, ‘They are here in spirit. I can feel their spirit here.’ It made everyone feel good.”

On that visit and others, Marin doesn’t ask the museum to close down admissions for privacy. Visitors get excited when they see him walking the galleries and exclaim “It’s him! It’s him!”, recounts Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, chair of the museum’s board.

“He’s gracious, probably to a fault, allowing people to take pictures with him without complaint,” says Valdez-Yeager. “It’s tiring. But he knows it’s important to be seen.”

The actor, 76, showed up for the State of the City despite having had bronchitis for three weeks. “I don’t even like the Broncos,” he joked in his remarks.

Riverside Hero Award winner Cheech Marin speaks during the State of the City event at the Riverside Convention Center on Jan. 26. “So many people around the nation have been introduced to Riverside as an arts destination,” Marin said. (Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) “We’re poised to exceed the city’s projection of 100,000 visitors our first year,” Marin said. “We’re going to trample on that. So many people around the nation have been introduced to Riverside as an arts destination. They have stayed in Riverside hotels, eaten Riverside food and pumped Riverside gas.”

Speaking of Riverside food, but hopefully not Riverside gas, museum staff takes Marin out to dinner when he’s in town. He doesn’t assert privileges. “He’ll stand in line and order food like anyone else,” Fernández says. “It’s interesting to see folks and how excited they get.”

The actor and art collector has no formal role at the museum. He surrendered control when he donated the bulk of his collection, some 550 pieces. The Riverside Art Museum has fiduciary responsibility.

Cheech Marin stands before the Patssi Valdez painting “Room on the Verge,” part of the inaugural exhibition, “Cheech Collects,” at the museum nicknamed The Cheech. (Photo by Carlos Puma/Riverside Art Museum) “He’s always funny, always joking, even when we’re talking business,” says Drew Oberjuerge, executive director of RAM. “Then I remember, ‘Oh, yeah, he got his start as an improv comedian.’”

“He’s more of an adviser,” Fernández says. “He’s a great ambassador for the museum and the center.”

She and Marin check in regularly.

“I talk to him about the collection, we talk about the art world, other exhibitions, update him on programming at the museum,” Fernández says. “We talk about broader issues of legacy and vision of the center.”

Fernández says Marin, whose collection reflected his own tastes, is now “thinking bigger picture for the center” as he continues collecting. The museum’s first acquisitions as an institution were two Judithe Hernández paintings to fill a gap.

Marin says he’s bought 10 more artworks since the museum’s opening.

“I’m trying to set up a narrative of Chicano art,” Marin tells me, “so when I find pieces that illustrate that narrative, I get them.”

I ask for an example. “I just started buying my first pieces of photography,” Marin says. He’d discovered the work of Chuy Benitez, a Houston photographer.

“He uses panoramic lenses and he stages these tableaus that are funny and interesting and reminiscent of family life, growing up Chicano,” Marin says. “Good art, you know it when you see it, at least I do.”

Cheech Marin reacts to piece of art on display inside the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture in Riverside. “Good art, you know it when you see it, at least I do,” the collector says. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) He’s thrilled by the reception to the museum and surprised by the number of repeat visitors, including people who return again and again with various family members.

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams, to tell you the truth,” Marin says.

The main-floor exhibition, “Cheech Collects,” displays only a fraction of his collection. The show was due to be rotated out by now, but it’s going to remain in place through May 14.

Says Fernández: “We have iconic works that people are still coming across the country to see.”

Meanwhile, the second-floor gallery exhibition of lenticular art, “Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective,” ended Jan. 22 and has been crated up to go on tour. It’ll be replaced starting Feb. 25 with “Land of Milk & Honey,” a show organized by the MexiCali Biennial.

And the first floor community gallery currently has “Life Logistics” from San Bernardino’s Garcia Center for the Arts through April 26 that takes aim at the Inland Empire scourge of warehousing.

When Marin mentions that he and comedy partner Tommy Chong will be touring in 2023 for a series of onstage conversations, I ask if Chong has visited the museum.

“Yeah,” Marin replies, “he and his wife came to the opening. They loved it.”

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, man. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.