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TELEVISION : She's Kept Her Eyes on the Prize : Myrlie Evers, widow of the slain civil rights leader, is working to keep his memory alive. As HBO prepares to air a new documentary on her late husband, her challenge is to make sure young people understand the intolerable conditions that blacks overcame in the South

July 10, 1994|GREG BRAXTON | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

It was supposed to be the end of the road.

Myrlie Evers' determined fight to help convict the accused murderer of her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, ended in February, won in the same Mississippi courtroom where it had first been lost 30 years earlier.

Newscasts showed a joyous and tearful Myrlie Evers jumping in the air after the guilty verdict, letting out a celebratory shout and looking toward the heavens as she proclaimed: "Medgar, I've gone the last mile of the way."

With that pronouncement, Myrlie Evers declared herself free from the ghosts of injustice. The agonizing emotional pain would evaporate.

Or so she thought.

In early June--little more than four months after aging white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith was found guilty of assassinating Medgar Evers outside his Jackson, Miss., home on June 12, 1963--Myrlie Evers; her daughter, Reena Evers-Everett, and her second husband, Walter Williams, were the guests of honor at a gala screening of the HBO documentary "Southern Justice: The Murder of Medgar Evers."

The screening of the film, which chronicles Medgar Evers' bold crusades against segregation in the South and the frustrating efforts to bring Beckwith to justice, was held at the National Press Club in Washington to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

It was to have been an evening of somber recollection and jubilant celebration.

And then Myrlie Evers saw the black-and-white images of Medgar, the quiet-spoken field secretary of the Mississippi division of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, on the screen. She noticed clips she had never seen before--glimpses of her late husband giving instructions, talking with fellow civil rights advocate Roy Wilkins, sitting alone on a stool. A rare clip of him smiling.

And all of the emotion, the hurt, the volatile mixture of love, anguish and anger, came crashing back into her heart and mind.

"It was so terribly emotional for me, I had to quickly shift from just looking at the film to becoming a critic of the production, analyzing the film," Evers said recently at a Beverly Hills hotel. "All these years, I had to develop survival tactics, and I found myself doing that again to keep myself from breaking down. My daughter was crying and my husband was wiping away tears, and all I could think was, 'I can't cry, I can't cry, I can't cry.'

"I knew then that it will never really be over," Evers, 61, added quietly. "I'm free, but nothing removes the pain of losing Medgar and the manner in which he was lost. The wound is so deep that it doesn't heal."

Now Evers and others find themselves embroiled in another struggle on behalf on Medgar Evers. They feel that his accomplishments and actions have too long been overshadowed by the deeds and dramatic demeanors of more widely known civil rights pioneers such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

While they greatly respect those leaders and don't want to take anything away from them, they said it is time that young and old realize that Medgar Evers should also be placed among the key figures who fought overwhelming forces in the struggle to win equality for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s.

"It has been a thorn in my side, but not in the sense of not wanting Martin and Malcolm to have their due," Evers said. "It just strikes a bad-sounding chord within me to see that period written about or portrayed on television and in movies and not see Medgar mentioned at all."

"Southern Justice: The Murder of Medgar Evers" is the first step to reverse the oversight. The co-production of HBO and the British Broadcasting Corp., narrated by civil rights activist Julian Bond, premieres Monday on HBO at 10:05 p.m. under its "America Undercover" documentary banner and will air several times this month.

Myrlie Evers is also overseeing efforts by Tougaloo College in Mississippi to turn Evers' former Jackson home into a cultural and social change center. She hopes to write how she fought to see justice done in her late husband's murder. The NAACP at its upcoming convention in Chicago will also introduce an annual Medgar Evers Award that will be given to three young people who draw a picture or write a poem or essay about his achievements and philosophies.

"The NAACP certainly recognizes the contributions of Medgar Evers, that he gave his life in the fight to get equal rights for blacks," said Terhea Washington, national public relations director for the NAACP. "African Americans have the right to vote because of him. We will make sure that his legacy is not lost."

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