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A life of victories and hardships
'Watch Me Fly'
by Myrlie Evers-Williams and Melinda Blau
Web posted on:
Monday, February 15, 1999 3:46:34 PM
(CNN) -- Few people know the private side of this most remarkable of public lives, a side that Myrlie Evers-Williams shares for the first time in "Watch Me Fly". Here is a moving and vivid portrait of a childhood within a family of proud, determined Mississippi women; of the dangers her family faced during the civil rights struggle; of her efforts as a single mother to raise three children while attending college; of her opening her heart to another wonderful man, only to lose him to cancer; and of her path from business and civic careers to the leadership of the NAACP through scandal and to a newfound vitality. "Watch Me Fly" is what Myrlie Evers-Williams calls an "instructive autobiography," a book that links her memories to the wisdom she has gained over the years.
Just like a tree that's planted by the water,
—- Negro Spiritual
I shall not be moved.
"The verdict's in," said a caller from the district attorney's office. "Get here now, or Judge Hilburn is going to start without you." The fate of the man who had murdered my first husband, Medgar Evers, hung in the balance and, more than that, my own salvation.
For thirty years, my focus had not wavered. Like a tree deeply rooted on the banks of a rushing river, I had not moved. While raising my children, going to school, working my way through the halls of power, even falling in love again, I had stayed the battle. And finally, on a bleak February morning, in an imposing white granite building in Jackson, Mississippi, those many years of faith, perseverance, and prayer were about to coalesce into a single moment and a few words uttered by a court clerk.
It was a Saturday morning, February 5, 1994, just past ten. When the phone rang, Darrell, my oldest, then forty, was already dressed. My daughter, Reena, a year Darrell's junior, was in the shower. Their younger brother, Van, thirty-four and a professional photographer, was far away in Los Angeles, finishing the last day of an important project at his studio. He was due in Jackson that evening, having assumed he'd at least be in time for the verdict, which we'd anticipated would not be handed down until Monday morning.
When the unexpected call came, I was sitting on the bed, wearing a robe, my hair in rollers, contemplating a weekend of anxious waiting. I had just talked to Walter, my husband of eighteen years. A retired longshoreman and union organizer, he was a gem of a man who willingly lived with Medgar's continuing presence and had staunchly encouraged my quest for justice. The television in our hotel room was tuned to CNN; events were happening in the rest of the world. But my universe was very small that day; the only news I cared about would come from the Hinds County Courthouse.
This was the third and final time the state of Mississippi tried to prove what everyone suspected: On June 12,1963, Byron De La Beckwith VI, hiding in the bushes of a vacant lot across the street from our house, pulled a trigger and drained the life out of Medgar. In doing so, he forever deprived my children and me of the man we loved -- our protector, our guide. He also robbed the world of a courageous and caring man who dared, when few other Negroes stepped forth, to challenge the segregationist way of life.
In membership and fund-raising literature, the NAACP called my husband their "man in Mississippi." In fact, he was the voice of civil rights in our state. He investigated murders and lynchings, planned voter registration drives, organized boycotts, and fought to gain access for our people and representation where there was none. Because of such efforts, many die-hard segregationists believed Medgar's voice had to be silenced. Byron De La Beckwith took it upon himself to see that it was.
Twice before, the evidence against Beckwith had been heard, but each trial ended with a hung jury. Both times, twelve men -- all of them White -- could not agree on a verdict, and Beckwith was set free. Twice before, in the case of Medgar's murder, and in countless other instances as well, Mississippi had sent a message to the world that it was all right to kill a Black man. In my view, Byron De La Beckwith wasn't the only one on trial. So was Mississippi.
Both sides had finished presenting their evidence on the previous Thursday evening; then it was up to the jury. Three Whites, nine Blacks, six men, six women -- a far cry from the 1964 juries -- had heard six days of testimony. "We expect a quick guilty verdict," I was told by both District Attorney Ed Peters, who conducted much of the cross-examination and the closing summation, and Bobby DeLaughter, the assistant district attorney who had prepared the case and acted as second chair during the trial.
"They don't have a case," Ed reassured me, referring to Beckwith's court-appointed defense attorneys, Jim Kitchens and Merrida "Buddy" Coxwell. But he also warned, "Anything less than a quick verdict means the case is about race."
What in Mississippi isn't about race? I wondered to myself.
By Friday night, with the twelve men and women still cloistered in the Hinds County Courthouse, we all were decidedly less optimistic. Conventional wisdom has it that the longer a jury stays out, the better it is for the defendant. Darrell, Reena, and I returned to the Holiday Inn with a heavy heart. There were two queen-size beds in our room -- Darrell took one bed, Reena and I the other. But I couldn't sleep. I looked first at one child and then at the other, and in my eyes they were not adults anymore but simply my babies, who had been through hell. I heard their soft breathing as they slept, and I thought about Medgar. When he would come home late, as he often did, we would look in on our children and listen to them breathe: our big boy, Darrell, who loved racing down our street, pedaling his bicycle madly to keep up with Medgar's long, loping strides; adorable, bright-eyed Reena, who had her daddy wrapped around her little finger; and our baby, Van, on whom we both doted. We'd go into our room and talk quietly about the three of them, his work, our dreams. Later he'd go take a last look at each child and then come back to bed, whispering how thankful he was for them and how much he wanted to protect them. Now, as I listened to their breathing, a hard rain beat at the windows, and I felt oddly at peace. At least I had given it my all -- I had gone the last mile. And no matter what happened, Medgar's and my babies were going to be okay.
After a sleepless night, the unexpected phone call from the DA's office put me into overdrive. I all but pulled my hair out, trying to get those Velcro rollers untangled. "Reena, are you out of the shower yet? Where are my shoes? Hurry!"
Our mad scramble was punctuated by desperate phone calls from the courthouse, each caller reminding me of Judge Breland Hilburn's renowned impatience. "If that man dares to convene court without us," I exclaimed at one point, "all hell is going to break loose!"
The deputy sheriff who had been our constant companion during the trial rushed us out of our room, past the hotel's security checkpoint and into the elevator. The Holiday Inn was only three minutes from the courthouse, but there was no time to lose. We literally ran through the lobby to his car, which was waiting at the curb. As we careened out of the hotel driveway, tires screeched, and the three of us were flung to the right. It felt as if we were riding on two wheels. The police radio crackled with static. "Come in, come in.... Where are you?" a voice asked. "Get here . . . get here now!"
Moments later we were hustling into the courthouse through a heavily guarded basement door. Our personal battalion of police escorts whisked us into an elevator to the second floor, past a horde of reporters and camera crews, and we made a breathless entrance into the dark, mahogany-paneled courtroom. It was packed to capacity; word had gotten out that the verdict was about to be handed down, and people were still trying to squeeze their way in. Throughout the trial, extensive security precautions had been taken -- searches, checklists, scanners. Today, especially, the Hinds County Sheriff's Department was taking no chances with the spectators. We three took the same seats we had occupied every day, reliving the tragedy that defined our family's life.
The jurors were led in. Judge Hilburn, a stern-looking, bearded man who resembled Ulysses S. Grant, admonished the crowd that there would be no outbursts after the verdict was announced. He asked the jurors to line up in front of the bench and face him. Behind them, several armed court officers stood, scanning the courtroom, readly for the slightest disruption.
"Have you reached a verdict?" Judge Hilburn asked.
"We have, Your Honor," replied the jury foreman, an elderly African-American minister, who handed the judge a sheet of paper on which the verdict was written. Hilburn spent what felt like intermintable seconds taking in the information and then gave the paper to his clerk, Barbara Dunn, to read. I squeezed Reena's and Darrell's hands, and held my breath.
I glanced over at Beckwith, who sat with his attorneys at the defense table, on the opposite side of the courtroom. Behind them were Beckwith's wife, Thelma; their son, Byron De La Beckwith VII; and their grandson, Byron VIII. In their jacket lapels, the three Beckwith men were wearing identical Confederate flag pins. Behind the family were supporters -- the high and low ranks of Mississippi's White supremacists. More than a few Ku Klux Klan luminaries were scattered among them.
I dared not let my eyes linger on that hateful man or his cronies, fearing the old urge to destroy him would surface. I dared not contemplate the warnings that so many people had voiced over the years: Nothing's going to come of your efforts; no jury in Mississippi will ever convict Beckwith. Everyone agreed that times had changed, but not that much. I dared not imagine what I'd feel if they were right.
But then, as Barbara Dunn's voice resonated through the courtroom, one simple sentence proved them wrong: "The jury finds the defendant, Byron De La Beckwith, guilty as charged."
There were gasps from the crowd. Beckwith himself didn't react, but Thelma screamed: "He's not guilty. And y'all know he's not. The Jews did it!" And then a roar of relief and redemption began to build in the back of the courtroom. It traveled the length of the hallway and down the stairs, steadily gaining momentum and volume as it spread throughout the lobby and, finally, rolled out the front doors, where Whites and Blacks alike stood waiting to see if justice could prevail in Mississippi. Ed Bryson, a TV reporter I had come to know in the years preceding the trial, told me later that it was as if "a scream had come up from the bowels of the building." Inside and out, the crowds exploded in ecstatic amens, with people yelling, "Yes!" clapping hands, hugging one another in disbelief. Even the members of the press who were relegated to the balcony -- once the only place we "Coloreds" were allowed to sit -- cried and cheered, giving up any pretense of impartiality.
At that moment, healing finally felt possible, for my soul and the soul of Mississippi.
I sat between Darrell and Reena, and tears of release poured from my eyes. My whole body was shaking; I went hot and I went cold. I wished Van could have been there, and of course my precious Walter, whom the DA's office had advised to stay home in Oregon; they deemed it best that the jury not be reminded of my remarriage. I reflected not only on the trial, on Medgar's death, and on Beckwith, who had been allowed to walk free while my children and I lived in fear, but also on my own life and the turns it had taken in the many years since the murder. I had battled mightily to preserve Medgar's memory and, at the same time, to be seen as myself, as Myrlie -- as a woman and not simply as "the widow of."
I had been haunted and driven by demons for so long -- to be the perfect child, the perfect wife, the perfect and always brave mourner. But suddenly I could see this collective set of demons fly out of me like a fluorescent fireball. My ghosts were purged from the very inside of my being. Hatred was finally released, too -- the hatred I had thought was gone but that always managed to creep back in; hatred that made me determined to avenge Medgar's death. What irony that in 1967, when I wrote For Us, the Living with William Peters, the opening sentence read: "Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband." Now I knew exactly where that man was and would be -- behind bars -- and I could finally put that long chapter of my life to rest.
I held on to my children, embracing them, crying with them. As Medgar's assassin was led out, finally, to jail, the booing from Beckwith's minions was drowned out by triumphant bravos from our camp. Meanwhile, the children and I, along with DeLaughter, Ed Peters, and several court officers, pushed through the crowd of well-wishers and curiosity-seekers and hastened upstairs to the DA's office, which had become our second home during the trial. A woman who had been writing about the trial edged her way into the elevator with us and audaciously tried to elicit my reaction. One of the officers promptly asked her to leave. This was a private and sacred moment for all of us who had waged the long, arduous battle for justice; no interlopers would be allowed to intrude.
My first phone call was to Walt, who was in tears. "You've done it," he said proudly the moment he heard my voice. I was disappointed that a friend had already called to inform him of the verdict. My next call was to Van, who was equally overcome with emotion -- relief that it was over, regret that he wasn't with us. While I spoke with various friends and supporters and tried to contain my emotions, DeLaughter and Peters went downstairs to meet the press. But it was the Evers family everyone wanted to see.
Minutes later, we were corralled into another large courtroom, where the press was waiting. More than a hundred members of the media burst into raucous applause when we entered. I rarely cry in public. But now I allowed myself to weep. Three decades of my life sped before my eyes, like a film in fast-forward, replaying memories that both scarred and nurtured my soul. What was there to say? How does one summarize thirty years of hope and despair? I inhaled deeply, and under my breath muttered an order to myself: "Composure."
The room was now still but for the sound of cameras clicking. "I'm almost speechless with emotion," I began, but my voice started to crack. Reena, in dark glasses, stood at my side, Darrell next to her. "I don't want to be formal with you -- there's a tendency to do that," I said, and paused again. I was, indeed, speechless. Finally, I just raised my fists in the air and exclaimed, "Yeah! Medgar . . . yeah!" My hands fell to my forehead, and I wept again, for once not caring what anyone thought.
Life is never without struggle. For thirty years, I had painstakingly transformed myself, trading in my mantle of widowhood for a cloak of increasing independence. I relocated from Jackson, Mississippi, to Claremont, California, where I enrolled in Pomona College to earn a bachelor's degree and worked to survive as a single mother. By the 1970s, I had become an activist in my own right and a businesswoman, moving from the sheltered university atmosphere to corporate America and politics. I thought I could never love again, yet I found in Walter Edward Williams an equal partner and a wonderful, mature love. I watched times change; I watched my children grow to become adults; I became a grandmother. And I learned many lessons along the way.
Many women today ask, "How did you do it all?" The short answer is: A day at a time. The long answer is that I simply stayed the course with a powerful belief in God and in myself. When my strength wavered, I said to myself, God hasn't brought you this far to leave you now. I was able to go that last mile -- for Medgar, for my children, for me -- because I had courage and an abiding faith.
I was also reared by two strong women who taught me to believe that whatever I set my sights on, I could accomplish -- as long as I didn't forget what was truly important in life and maintained a sense of who I was. Many years ago, my grandmother told me, "Baby, God is like the potter, and we are the clay. The Potter molds each of us into vessels. But only when the pottery is placed in the fire does it become strong. And only then," she explained, "does the real beauty, the real strength, shine through."
Like many women of my generation, and like many young women struggling today, I've been through the fire.
Though I have waged many battles in my life, bringing Byron De La Beckwith to justice was surely a defining achievement, one I couldn't have attained without the love and support of my children, my dear Walter, and the few family members and friends who stood by me, despite their own misgivings about my single-mindedness. It is vital to surround yourself with love. But in crisis we are all truly alone, and we must face the terror in ourselves with only God as our solace. Especially in moments of self-doubt, it was my faith that saw me through. I trusted in God, knowing that he knew what he had in store for me, even if I couldn't understand or accept it at the time.
The qualities that helped me stay the battle and strive for justice -- not only my faith, but my stubborn perseverance, my unwillingness to embrace conventional wisdom, my reluctance to be identified solely by Medgar's memory while, at the same time, honoring it -- helped me survive everything that transpired in my life from the moment Beckwith's bullet found its mark.
Medgar had always made me promise to take care of "his" children. Though I constantly reminded him that they were in fact our children, I kept my promise -- and more. I took care of the family, continued his work, forged a career of my own. I made a difference, as Medgar had always hoped I would.
Although I couldn't know on the day of the guilty verdict what the coming days, weeks, months, and years would bring, I felt in my heart that I would continue to make a difference. Indeed, after the verdict was announced, I read in the Clarion-Ledger, Jackson's largest newspaper, that, due in part to my efforts to bring justice to our family "Mississippi is free at last." That same year, I encouraged a citizens' group to fund a statue that was erected in Medgar's memory, and a post office was also dedicated in his name. The year after that, I was elected chairman of the NAACP, the very organization Medgar sought to preserve. Almost none of those accomplishments were things that I, Myrlie Louise Beasley, from Vicksburg, Mississippi, was raised to do.
© 1998 by Myrlie Evers-Williams
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