Myrlie Evers-Williams ’68 in Her Own Words

Myrlie Evers Williams, class of 1968, standing in front of Little Bridges in 2022

The following are excerpts from two oral history interviews with Myrlie Evers-Williams ’68 conducted at Pomona College in Fall 2022. In these conversations, she reflects about her career, legacy, family and hopes for the future.

On Politics

“I’ve always been interested in politics. I like dares. You tell me I can’t, I’ll be sure that I will. Politics has always fascinated me. And the fact [is] that in my native state of Mississippi, people of my color could very seldom run for office... We couldn’t vote. I remember the many meetings that we had to encourage people to register and vote. I remember the many threats that we received. It reached a point where I almost knew which phone call was going to be a threat.”

“The biggest challenge [when running for office in California in the 1970s] was my color and the fact that I was female. Females of any color were not warmly accepted into the political battlefield… There was a thought that was promoted during that time: ‘You are only a woman. You do not belong in a tough political fight.’ Some of the questions began, ‘What am I to do? Stay at home? Support the men and not even test my own strength and the positions that I believe in?’”

On Life Lessons

“Sometimes rocking that boat had rhythm to it and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I ended in the water myself. But it was worth the experience of learning how to survive, even if you ended up in the water. How to fight in different ways, but to fight clean, to fight with the mind. And it became a game, one that I enjoy through today. Nothing excites me more than having a good challenge and people thinking, ‘She’s a woman; she can’t do it.’ And that’s how I came to the name of one of my books, Watch Me Fly.”

On Moving to California

“In a sense, it was a miracle. After my husband, Medgar, was assassinated, I knew that I no longer wished to live in the state of Mississippi and rear our children there. Just reviewing conversations that I had, that Medgar and I had, I recall that he said, ‘Myrlie, if we ever leave Mississippi, we’re going to California.’ So California it was.”

“Moving here was something that my aunt, for whom I’m named, and my grandmother—those two women reared me—were not particular about my moving from Mississippi to California. But I was told, ‘All right, if that’s what you want to do and you think it’s a good decision, do it.’ I knew no one here, like a pioneer.”

“It truly was a family affair. I just did not pick up my children and say, ‘We are going to Claremont.’ They participated in [the decision]. And I really think that helped us in making the move, because they were a part of it.”

On Faith

“My grandmother, who reared me, Annie McCain Beasley, had Scripture that she could quote for everything. I’m far from being like that... But I do remember one that she would repeat quite often: ‘The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.’ I later came to understand what that meant. …I could have so easily become so filled with anger and hatred that my life would’ve taken a completely different turn. I mean, completely different turn. I’m so thankful that was not meant to be.”

“I enjoy the idea of taking on tough issues, but I am a deep believer in God, and I ask for counsel in everything that I do.”

On Love and Forgiveness

“I have never been in this world one day without love, and it has carried me through everything I have been through to this point, and it will carry me off. I couldn’t ask for more than that. You think of people who don’t know what love is, and I just had it. [I am] very thankful for it, and I tried to give that back in return—except for one [instance.] It’s been difficult, but I think I’m much improved and far over that. You cannot hold anger, revenge and hurt within without being wounded yourself.”

On History and her Children

“I truly feel blessed to have met these very important people in history. I will also say that I wish I had not had to pay the price that I did to meet them, but I’m thankful that we [met]. So that’s it. I see my precious daughter here [looking at a photo from the collection]. I see her standing next to President Kennedy and instead of seeing her standing next to the president of the United States, I see her as a child that kept me standing. She was my strength. I remember her words to me shortly after her dad’s death and she came over to me and she said, ‘Don’t cry mommy. I’ll take care of you.’ And she has.”

On Chairing the NAACP

“Certainly, I did not do that by myself. I cannot take that credit, because there was a feeling that with this leadership, even though the leader was a woman, we can pull this organization together. We can pull in youth and others who have not been involved. Let’s give it a try. What is it—‘Nothing beats a failure but a try.’ All of us who were involved decided to work together. That’s the key, working together for a single purpose, and that was to build that organization.”

On the 1994 Verdict Convicting Medgar Evers’ Killer

“I’m not sure, when that verdict came in, what it meant except that I was free. What does free mean? Was I free of the hatred that had been eating away at me? Was I free of the doubt of whether I was strong enough to carry through? And I’m sure there were other questions, too. But I do remember the relief, and I remember even to this day thanking God that I believe in that I had done my work and that I was free. That’s the best way I can put it.”

On Motherhood

“I had a very difficult time [during my time at the NAACP] because it meant spending quite a bit of time away from home, and I had those three children there who had already lost their father and then their mother would be away quite a bit, too.”

“It was a tough decision, but it was something I felt I had to do. I’ve often thought about that, and at times I’ve wondered, Did I do the right thing by leaving my children at times to go on lectures throughout the country to raise money? But it was a decision that I made after quite a bit of prayer and talking to a couple of close friends about it, of asking Medgar, ‘What would you say to this?’”

On Delivering President Obama’s Invocation

“I wanted to enjoy the moment. Just being so proud that we as a people had come as far as we have. Of knowing that Medgar must be somewhere clapping his wings furiously. God, this would’ve made him so happy. This was what he was working for. ...We’re blessed. We’re blessed.”

On Pomona College

“That’s where I began to grow again. To live again. Here on this campus, [I found] people who understood and who supported me and told me, ‘Yes you can.’ But I would cry and throw up my hands and say, ‘I can’t make it.’ There were these instructors and people who told me, ‘Yes you can.’”

“…It was the teachers here who helped me move ahead and come out of this feeling of drowning. And I knew I couldn’t afford to drown because I had three children who were depending on me. …The instructors here and the other people did not smother me. They gave me space. But they surrounded me [with] love and understanding.”

On Her Legacy

“…I’m most proud of our survival. I don’t mean to be facetious but meaning things that I’ve accomplished. All three children. There were other things, like being the head of the NAACP, doing a [piano] concert at Carnegie Hall, delivering the opening prayer for Barack Obama’s swearing in—I think that was the second one. Graduating from Pomona College...I am very proud of that. Of course, being Medgar’s wife and widow and the mother of his three children. I can give you a list of a hundred [things]. I’m just thankful.”

“I hope I encouraged others to run for office. It might have been short-term that I was in the public limelight, but I hope it encouraged others to take the same step. I had a couple tell me that it did, and that meant quite a bit to me. I never asked for praise or adoration. Everything I did, I did for my heart, my love of God, my love of Medgar and my general love of people...just plain and simple. ‘How can I help?’”

On the Future

“Where are we in this country today? What kind of positive changes have taken place over the last few years? Which direction are we going in now? When I stop and think about that, I’m not sure I have an answer. And that’s disturbing to me. Not only for my generation, but the generations that are coming after me. I still see so much prejudice and racism today. A little more subtle, a little more dangerous. You take someone like me who takes a deep breath and says, ‘Phew, I’m tired.’ Do I give up? And if I don’t give up, what do I do? That’s the question that I have for myself: ‘What can I do now?’ Excuse my way of putting this, but I have run myself ragged in the search for [us] all coming together as human beings instead of [by] color of skin.”

“To those fighting for justice, keep pushing. Don’t ever give up. Strategize, pull others in. You can’t do it by yourself. Mix the group. Find people who you think are on the edge of thinking like you do. Those who don’t, try to cultivate. And I’m not talking about some crazy group out there. I’m talking about our lives, this country’s life. If you don’t join in to do what is just, what I call what is right—I can only speak for myself—what are you going to do? Sit there? Just be? What a waste. What a waste. Get up, go, act, think, run.”

On the Collection

“My hope is that word gets out that this exhibit is here at Pomona College and that people will come to see, bring their children to see and learn of this particular part of the past. And hopefully someone who views this will grow to be another strong leader in our country—I guess I should say a leader for justice and equality.”

“Enrolling in Pomona College was a major change in my life, and I believe in the lives of my children. I’m so thankful for that. That’s why I offered a large part of my heart to Pomona. I never thought of any other place to give this collection to if Pomona accepted.”