Despite his influence throughout the civil rights movement — playing a central role in helping desegregate the University of Mississippi, launching boycott campaigns against discriminatory merchants, registering disenfranchised black voters and spearheading investigations into the murder of Emmett Till — the late Medgar Evers doesn't have the same name recognition as other prominent civil rights leaders.
It's not that Evers, who was the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, has been forgotten. Though not quite a household name, there is New York City's Medgar Evers College and a Jackson, Miss., airport named in his honor. The song "Mississippi Goddam" was Nina Simone's response to Evers' 1963 murder and the two deadlocked trials for his killer by all-white juries.
But more people have been talking about Evers recently because last week the U.S. Navy christened a new cargo/ammunition ship named after him. The USNS Medgar Evers, unveiled earlier this month in San Diego, measures 689 feet and will deliver food, ammunition, fuel and supplies to other ships at sea. It marks the first time the Navy has named a vessel after a civil rights leader.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, Evers' widow (and an activist in her own right, having served as the first full-time chair of the NAACP and a co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus), told The Root why she felt "free" by the tribute to her husband, and why she thinks — although some of her generation's protest techniques are now "passé" — that young people must carry on their sense of determination in modern civil rights struggles.
The Root: Do you feel your late husband's contributions to this country have been recognized as much as they should?
Myrlie Evers-Williams: I am just so honored for Medgar and all of the other people who gave their lives in the civil rights movement, particularly those in Mississippi. In my humble estimation, very few of them have received rightful acknowledgment of their contributions. Medgar was in the forefront of the movement long before some of the others that we recognize with great esteem today, such as Dr. King, before they really began to use their influence themselves.
Medgar was not a media person. I would tell him on occasion, "Why don't you let the media know what you're doing?" His answer was, "I'm doing what I have to do. I'm not doing this for media coverage." That's not to say that others were; that was just his position: I'm here to do a job, and that is it.
He was a man who did believe in this country, and he believed in his people. He wanted things to be just and fair, and he was willing to work for that. He was a veteran of World War II who fought in Normandy, France.
He came home and found the situation was still the same, that he and all others like him were second-class citizens. So he had a mission to change that and to bring young people into the movement as well, to build an army of freedom fighters. After he was assassinated on June 12, 1963, at our doorstep, with our three children seeing all the gore involved, I made a promise to myself that I would do everything I could to see that he was remembered.
TR: What does having a Navy cargo ship named after him represent for you?
MEW: At the christening of the USNS Medgar Evers, I had the feeling that perhaps I had completed that part of my mission. I would have people tell me, "Why do you keep pushing this?" when I had already fought so hard, after three trials, to get a conviction of Medgar's murderer. But I could never rest until Medgar was acknowledged. It became a grinding effort to have people say to me, "Medgar who?"
Former Mississippi Governor [and current Navy Secretary] Ray Mabus made a promise to me that he would do something to see that Medgar was remembered. Well, it came into fruition. As a result of the USNS Medgar Evers being built and christened, I feel as though I'm free. Free of the pain of the lack of recognition for my husband and his work. Free of the anxiety that confronts me every time I go someplace where civil rights leaders' names are mentioned, and Medgar is not included.
I can rest with the knowledge that this massive ship will be traveling the world with his name boldly emblazoned on it. It is a cargo supply ship with many purposes, but one of the outstanding purposes is its humanitarian one.
Take, for instance, if this ship had been built in commission with the Haiti earthquake nightmare. That ship would have been there. If would have been in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami. Those are the humanitarian kinds of things that Medgar believed in. This ship is a moving monument to him and to all those who worked alongside of him.
I'm also hopeful that the news media will help young people to understand that part of history. I hear too often young adults saying, "That doesn't really matter; this is now." And it's not to force anyone to recognize Medgar and other lesser-known names, but to educate them on the dedication that those people had that got us to where we are.
TR: One of the issues that you and your husband worked on was voter registration. That's still a heated issue, as states push laws requiring specific ID to vote, reducing early voting, or making other changes. Do you feel that voting rights are still vulnerable today?
MEW: Yes. The voting-rights benefits that America as a whole has received, but particularly African Americans, are being attacked. I remember in one speech, Medgar said that the most difficult thing that we are confronting is not what we achieve now, but being able to hold on to those rights.
That was years ago when he cautioned people to focus on holding on to what we have because there will be forces that try to remove those things from us. From the local level to the top level, you have to watch what's going on, and not wait until the last minute to raise concerns about it.
TR: What would you suggest that concerned voters do?
MEW: We have to look back in terms of some of the things that we did years and years ago. I am not suggesting that we put our bodies in the street again. That's passé, or at least I certainly hope it is. But we have to know how to organize in our communities and be able to act whenever it is necessary to do so, to let those in office know that we simply will not tolerate these laws and attitudes to put us back where we were years and years ago. And I'm not sure how many people are taking that seriously.
We have tools now that we didn't have then. There's so much more media, there's a whole electronic field in which we communicate, and we have the young bright minds to take us to that point. That doesn't mean that picking up people in the community to take them to the poling places is obsolete — we're going to have to do that, too, along with using the Internet and everything else that we have. But it means dedication. It means being willing to give. It means focus.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.