'You move forward': Myrlie Evers-Williams marches onBy Jamie Allen
CNN Interactive Senior Writer
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The journey of Myrlie Evers-Williams has taken her from the dusty roads of Mississippi to the forefront of the struggle for racial equality, from young girl to respected woman, from tragic figure to triumphant individual.
She is a symbol of the civil rights movement and all of the sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom. She watched helplessly as her husband, Medgar Evers, was shot to death on the front lawn of their Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963, an event that turned him into a martyr and turned her into a single parent with little money as the war over skin color raged around her and across the country.
And she overcame, discovering her unique identity to become a successful businesswoman, a candidate for Congress, and chairperson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She also found love again, and eventually watched as a jury convicted her first husband's murderer and sent him to jail for life.
But when you ask Evers-Williams about her life, she grounds her answer in modesty.
"My story is not such an unusual story," she said during a recent interview with CNN Interactive. "There are so many other women out there who have been single parents, if not seeing their loved one killed, then murdered by death, separation, divorce. And we all go through these same things to a degree. So you pull yourself up, and you move forward."
It is a maxim that has served as the marching beat to her incredible life, a pilgrimage that can now be witnessed in the new autobiography, "Watch Me Fly: What I Learned On the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be."
The account, written with the help of Melinda Blau, encompasses the Evers-Williams journey from the time she was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on St. Patrick's Day in 1933, to her present-day serene existence in Bend, Oregon.
'I take risks'
Evers-Williams, wearing a confident black suit during her interview, is still radiant at 65, with soft skin and compassionate eyes. She is the type of woman who readily shares her victories and hardships in order to help others enjoy and vanquish their own. She is also one who -- at the slightest encouragement -- talks freely about the importance of family, how it is the "very basis for American society." Her wisdom comes directly from her own story.
She says the process of writing her story was difficult, as she had to relive painful memories, including the death of her second husband, Walter Edward Williams, to prostate cancer in 1995. The memory was still fresh when she and Blau discussed it.
"I found myself very emotional because I had not had a chance to mourn his death," she says. "Writing this book was the first time that I had to talk about it and think about it and mourn the fact that he was no longer there."
The writing of the book was also a battle of wills, at times, between Evers-Williams and Blau, a respected journalist who wanted Evers-Williams to reveal more about her life.
"I take risks in the book of really putting the private side of Myrlie out for the reader to see, and (Blau) wanted me to do even more and I said, 'No, there's a place where I will draw the line,'" Evers-Williams recalls. "We had some heated times ... but I think we're pretty good friends as a result of it."
'This child bride'
As a result of that working relationship, readers see the blossoming of a young woman before the eyes of the changing nation. We learn about Evers-Williams' upbringing, as her parents divorced when she was very young, and her being raised by her grandmother and aunt, who instilled in her a sense of independence and a strong will.
We join her as she heads to college, and on the first day of class meets Medgar, the man who will forever change her life. We follow their path as they fall in love and as she drops out of school when they marry. We also see how Evers-Williams initially resisted her destiny to become "the women she was meant to be."
"As I wrote this book," Evers-Williams recalls, "I thought of the relationship that Medgar and I had, the struggles as he worked to help me mature. The poor man. I feel so sorry for him now, having to deal with this child bride, and how patient he was and how much I tested his sanity."
Evers-Williams says her husband would at times offer to take her for a drive in their car, and once she climbed in he would head straight to her parents house in Vicksburg.
"Here's your child," Medgar Evers would say. "I can't do anything with her."
'A dual personality'
"Watch Me Fly" also offers a down-home perspective of the burgeoning civil rights movement, as Myrlie and Medgar Evers set up the NAACP's first Mississippi office in Jackson. They were doing what they knew was right, and raising a family along the way.
And in 1963, with the nation's newscasts blotted by race riots, with Martin Luther King Jr. revealing his dream in Washington, everything changed for Myrlie.
She says after her husband was gunned down -- as she and their children watched -- she became two different people.
"I had a dual personality, really," she says. "The one that the public saw (was) the nice, kind, forgiving, strong widow. The other side of me, which was a secret side of me, despised everybody because everybody was responsible for Medgar's death -- those whose color skin was not the same as mine, those people who were of the same race who had just disowned Medgar. It was such anger, such rage."
She says her anger took her to the brink of suicide, but the love for her children stopped her -- barely.
'I am me'
Readers of "Watch Me Fly" are reminded how powerful this decision became, as Evers-Williams eventually found her true identity during a 1969 race for a congressional seat in which she stepped out of her husband's shadow and changed, quite literally, her political ticket from "Mrs. Medgar Evers" to "Myrlie Evers."
"That was my first time of really saying, 'I am me,'" she says. "'I'm a person, an individual in my own right. I want to move forward with the rest of my life, being me, not The Widow Of ...'"
Evers-Williams went on to experience many career triumphs, including becoming the first African-American woman named as commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works (1988), and the first woman to serve full-time as chairperson of the NAACP (1995 to 1998). She raised her three children to become successes in their own right, and she fell in love with and married Walter Edward Williams, a longshoreman and union organizer who captured her heart 10 years after Medgar was killed.
Looking back on their relationship, she sees that her relationship with Walter was completely different than her days with Medgar.
"With Walter, it was a good, solid, mature love," she recalls. "With Medgar, I was growing by leaps and bounds, but there were also the outside influences that impacted us, never knowing from one day to another whether it would be the last day we would have together."
'How many times must I prove myself?'
And Walter was completely supportive of the weight she carried as the widow of Medgar Evers. In fact, Evers-Williams' life goal to put her husband's killer behind bars is a recurring theme that winds through her life, from the first two trials of Byron De La Beckwith which ended in hung juries, to Evers-Williams triumphant moment in 1994 when Beckwith was finally convicted. (The story was made into an acclaimed movie, "Ghosts of Mississippi", starring Whoopi Goldberg and James Woods.)
And now Evers-Williams has a new goal.
"I have decided now that the next phase of my life will devoted to the establishment of the Medgar Evers Institute," an organization that will teach leadership development to young people.
Clearly, Evers-Williams has lived her own incredible life, but she remains dedicated to the man who meant so much to her early years, and to a troubled time in American history.
Each day, she walks a fine line between both lives.
"I am so proud to have been Medgar's wife, the mother of his children. But I ask the question sometimes: How many times must I prove myself? How many times must I be identified with someone else? I am my own person. I can think. I have done things on my own ... it's that constant struggle. So you reach a point where you say, 'This is it. It's alright.' I know who I am and I will continue do my thing."
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