For Myrlie Evers, the rage has passed. It was June 12, 1963 when she witnessed her husband Medgar’s assassination in the driveway of their Jackson, Miss. home. “For a moment,” wrote Myrlie in LIFE, “I hated everybody with a white skin. But Medgar taught me not to hate anyone.” Now, 15 years later, Myrlie is working within the system that her NAACP-official husband gave his life to change. She is, at 45, director of corporate community affairs for Atlantic Richfield in L.A.
“I decided to make it on the merits of Myrlie Evers,” she says, “instead of ‘widow of.’ ”
In the past year she has convinced ARCO to underwrite $68,000 for a women’s mid-career program and $20,000 for the National Women’s Education Fund. Locally, she pushed through a $12,000 grant to a Watts group which feeds 250 people a day. (As for the other Mississippians who became national figures in Medgar Evers’ tragedy, the accused murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, whose two trials resulted in hung juries, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and is currently serving a five-year sentence for transporting explosives. Charles Evers took over his brother’s NAACP post in the state and is still mayor of Fayette.)
The poised, articulate businesswoman bears little resemblance to the naive 18-year-old who wed her Alcorn A&M schoolmate in 1951. During their marriage Myrlie was proud of, but personally troubled by, their “life of fear” and her husband’s unrelenting commitment to the civil rights movement. “The struggle was his mistress; the kids came second and I was third,” she remembers. “I’m sure there were times we were both thinking divorce.” But when Medgar declared, “Either you’re with me or you’re not,” she stuck by him. “I loved the man,” she explains.
A year after Medgar’s death she took the three children to Claremont, Calif. and enrolled at Pomona College, with the NAACP paying her tuition. In 1968 she met a union activist and crane operator named Walter Williams. “I felt I didn’t need him or any man,” she says. But Williams was persistent. “Some men had been interested because they thought I had more money than I had. Others couldn’t deal with the memory. Here was someone who cherished it.” They were married in 1976. Her three children, now 18 to 24, are, after some earlier trauma, all flourishing, she reports.
Myrlie ran for Congress in 1970, doing unexpectedly well but losing to Birchite John Rousselot. Her campaign started too late, she says, adding that there will likely be a next time and she’ll be better prepared. “My philosophy,” says Myrlie, “is that whatever happens in your life, you can turn it into something positive.”