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.

Vittorio Rienzo

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