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Saving the NAACP : Myrlie Evers-Williams goes way back with the NAACP. Now that she's talen over, can she make it important again?

June 25, 1995|Sam Fulwood III | Sam Fulwood III is a staff writer in The Times' Washington Bureau. His last article for the magazine was about African American intellectuals

Every June 12 for the past 32 years, Myrlie Evers-Williams has been unable to escape grief. Last year was no different. Early in the morning, she and her second husband, Walter Williams, along with an old friend and fellow NAACP board member, Joe Madison, left downtown Washington for the 20-minute ride to Arlington National Cemetery. June 12 is the anniversary of the murder of Evers-Williams first husband--Medgar Evers. Every June 12 for the past 32 years, Myrlie Evers-Williams has traveled to Arlington National Cemetery. Last year was no different. Early in the morning, she and her second husband, Walter Williams, along with an old friend and fellow NAACP board member, Joe Madison, left downtown Washington for the 20-minute ride to the cemetery. June 12 is the anniversary of the murder of Evers-Williams first husband--Medgar Evers. The NAACP's first field director in the Deep South, Evers was, during his lifetime and perhaps even more so after his death, one of the legendary figures of the civil rights movement--an emblem of the organization's glorious and defiant zenith in the late '50s and early '60s.

Immaculately dressed in a dark business suit, white shirt and skinny necktie, Evers crisscrossed Mississippi organizing NAACP chapters and encouraging poorly educated black people to stand up against legalized segregation. For civil rights workers, Mississippi was considered the most dangerous state in the country, and Evers, who was born and raised there, had been the recipient of numerous death threats. Around midnight on June 12, 1963, as he walked from his car toward his home, Evers was shot in the back. His wife and three small children heard the noise. By the time they reached him, he had crawled to the front door, mortally wounded.

As Joe Madison looked out the window of the car as it crossed the Potomac River, his thoughts were on the troubles plaguing the NAACP. He had devoted much of his adult life to working for the oldest civil rights organization in the country, and he took enormous pride in its accomplishments. But he now feared that the group was in such disarray that its very existence was threatened. He was honored that Evers-Williams considered him close enough a friend to accompany her to Medgar's grave, but at the same time he wanted to use the occasion to persuade her to run for the NAACP's board chair.

"Driving over there, Myrlie and Walt tried to convince me to run for chairman of the board," Madison recalls, a broad smile splitting his face. "I told them, 'No way! I've got a better deal.' And I pointed directly into Myrlie's face and said, 'You need to run. You've got to do it.' "

The closer Evers-Williams got to Arlington National Cemetery, the more pensive she became. Memories washed over her, altering her mood the way a slow, sweeping searchlight can transform the night sea from blinding brilliance to inky blackness. She began to reminisce about her life with Medgar: how they had met on her first day at Mississippi's Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College; her decision to drop out after her sophomore year to marry him against her family's wishes; his decision to join the NAACP because it was the most radical, nonviolent organization fighting segregation; the courage it took for him to open a NAACP field office in 1954 in Jackson, Miss.; how she had been his partner from the beginning in civil rights work.

As their car entered the cemetery, Evers-Williams continued to talk, her husky voice growing more reflective. "She was describing that night when he was shot," says Madison, "how the bullet went through him and landed inside the house. She was talking matter-of-fact, talking about all she went through for 30 years to get Byron De La Beckwith convicted of killing Medgar. How some of the people in Mississippi had told her, 'Let it rest.' "

As they walked across the cemetery and approached the grave site, Evers-Williams became silent. She had begun to think of a more recent memory, of a rainy Saturday four months earlier, Feb. 5, 1994, when Evers-Williams was sitting at the prosecution table in the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson, Miss. While a court official read the verdict--"We find the defendant guilty as charged"--Evers-Williams clutched the hand of her 40-year-old son, Darrell, and covered her mouth with her other hand. She composed herself long enough to hear the judge sentence Beckwith, whose two previous trials had ended in hung juries, to life in prison. Then, in a burst of emotion that had been bottled up for more than 30 years, Evers-Williams walked out of the courtroom, flung her arms around her son and cried. An hour or so later, she emerged to greet reporters. Her eyes still moist, she thrust her right fist into the air and shouted, "All I want to do is say, 'Yay, Medgar! Yay!' "

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