Myrlie Evers-Williams achieved national prominence as the chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was narrowly elected to the post in 1995 as part of an effort to reform an organization rocked by scandal and allegations of financial mismanagement.
Evers-Williams was born March 17, 1933, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. She became part of the modern Civil Rights Movement through her marriage to Medgar Evers, who was the state field secretary for the Mississippi NAACP. Her world changed dramatically on June 12, 1963, when her husband was shot to death outside their home in Jackson, Mississippi. White supremacist Byron de la Beckwith was charged with the murder, but two trials in the 1960s ended in hung juries. After the second trial, Evers-Williams vowed to bring de la Beckwith to justice.
Following her husband's assassination, Evers-Williams assumed his position as NAACP field secretary. Then, in 1964, she decided to move with her three young children to Claremont, California, and begin a new life. In 1967, she published For Us the Living, a memoir of her life with her late husband. She earned a degree in sociology at Pomona College in 1968, and then became director of planning for the Claremont Colleges system.
In 1970, she ran for a seat in Congress in what was then the 24th congressional district in California. Though she lost the election, it was a turning point for Evers-Williams. She was publicly transformed from Mrs. Medgar Evers to Myrlie Evers. In the 1970s and 1980s, she worked in the corporate arena, serving as director of consumer affairs for the Atlantic Richfield Company. In 1976, she married Walter Williams, a California longshoreman and Civil Rights activist.
In 1987, Evers-Willams became the first African American woman to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works. She and her husband moved to Bend, Oregon, in 1989.
"Never lose sight of your goals. we are living in a time when we must take into our hands our destinies and our futures."
When Mississippi prosecutors failed to try de la Beckwith a third time for the murder of Medgar Evers, Evers-Williams mounted a campaign to generate public opinion in favor of a retrial. When she was told that no transcripts of the original trial were to be found, she produced an original that she had held in a safe deposit box since the 1960s. In 1994, her efforts succeeded, and de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 crime. He was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001. In 1996, Evers-Williams served as a consultant to the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, which recounts the story of the retrial and conviction of de la Beckwith. Actress Whoopi Goldberg portrays Evers-Williams in the movie.
Despite the many changes and activities in her life, Evers-Williams remained committed to the NAACP. Serving on the national board of directors in the 1990s, she observed firsthand the problems that were engulfing the once dominant civil rights organization. A growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. culminated in August 1994, when he was fired for committing more than $330,000 in NAACP funds, without the board's approval, to settle a Sex Discrimination suit filed against him. The focus then shifted to Chairman William F. Gibson, who was accused of misappropriating NAACP funds for personal use.
Evers-Williams was approached to challenge Gibson at the 1995 board election. She hesitated to run because her second husband was dying from prostate cancer. However, Walter Williams urged her to take up the fight. She was elected to the chair in February 1995, winning by a one-vote margin; Evers-Williams was the first woman elected to that position. Her husband died shortly after her election.
The precarious state of the NAACP soon became clear to Evers-Williams. Membership had declined from five hundred thousand to three hundred thousand, while the organization's debt had risen to over $4 million. Corporate support had also dropped, forcing severe staff reductions at the national headquarters in Baltimore.
Evers-Williams moved quickly to restore trust. The board hired an accounting firm to audit financial records and directed its attorney to seek restitution from Gibson. Evers-Williams renewed contact with financial contributors, crisscrossing the United States in search of support. By the end of 1995, she had substantially reduced the NAACP's debt. New programs were started with the goal of reinvigorating the NAACP and attracting younger members. In December 1995, the board approved the appointment of Representative Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) as president and executive director, capping a frenetic year for Evers-Williams.
Evers-Williams served as chair of the NAACP until 1998. She then began work on the Medgar Evers Institute, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, which promotes civil rights and economic development. In 2003, the institute partnered with Oregon State University to establish a western regional office in Bend, home of Evers-Williams.
Evers-Williams continues to be a well-received speaker and author. In 1999, she published a memoir, titled Watch me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be, with Melinda Blau. She has also received numerous honorary degrees and awards including the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus Achievement Award, the NAACP's Image Award for Civil Rights, and the Woman of the Year Award from the state of California. In March 2003, Ever-Williams visited Mississippi in order to participate in a tribute by the Mississippi Legislature to honor the accomplishments of the late Medgar Evers and Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Allen, Jamie. February 15, 1999. "You Move Forward: Myrlie-Evers Williams Marches On." CNN.com: Book News. Available online at <www.cnn.com/books/news/9902/15/myrlie> (accessed July 2, 2003).
Evers-Williams, Myrlie, with Melinda Blau. 1999. Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be. Boston: Little, Brown.