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Myrlie Evers Williams: A Model of Justice-Seeking

She is an outstanding person whom I have come to admire a lot just this year.
I am speaking about the woman who was named Myrlie Beasley after her birth in 1933 in Mississippi. In 1951, she married Medgar Evers, who became a widely known civil rights activist.

Fifty years ago today, on June 12, 1963, Myrlie became a widow with three small children as her husband was shot in the back, assassinated in the driveway of their home in Jackson, Miss.

Myrlie once again received national attention on Jan. 21 of this year when she became the first woman and the first layperson to deliver the invocation at a presidential inauguration. President Obama asked her to do that, and she did it admirably.

Back in 1996, a film about the tragic shooting of Myrlie’s husband was released under the name “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

It begins with the actual civil rights speech President Kennedy delivered on national television on June 11, 1963, just the day before Medgar Evers was killed.

The movie is largely about the retrial of the accused assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, in the 1990s. But Myrlie has a significant role in the film, and Whoopi Goldberg portrays her quite impressively.

Beckwith, who died in 2001, was tried twice in 1964, but those trials both resulted in hung juries and, thus, there was no conviction.

James Woods was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his sterling performance as Beckwith in the movie.

Although he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, Alec Baldwin did well in portraying Robert (Bobby) DeLaughter, the assistant D.A. who was instrumental in finally getting a conviction against Beckwith in 1994, more than 30 years after he shot and killed Evers.

Beckwith was a member of the White Citizens’ Council (WCC), which was formed in July 1954 in direct response and opposition to the Supreme Court decision in May of that year calling for racial integration of public schools.

But although he was a WCC member, Beckwith thought stronger and more direct action was needed, such as murdering a leading civil rights activist.

The WCC changed its name in 1956, and then in 1988 it morphed into the Council of Conservative Christians, which has its headquarters in St. Louis.

On their website they claim to be “the nation’s leading defender of the Confederate Flag.” Robert B. Patterson, founder of the WCC, was from the beginning, and apparently still is, on the board of directors of the current organization.

In 1976, Myrlie married Walter Williams, a longshoreman and civil rights/union activist, who had studied the work of her first husband. He passed away in 1995.

Shortly after his death, Myrlie was elected chairperson of the NAACP, a highly significant position she held until 1998.

As I think back to the tragedy of Medgar Evers’ assassination 50 years ago, I take this moment to express my admiration for Myrlie and all she has continued to accomplish in these 50 years for civil rights and the equality of all citizens of our country.

I pray that thinking about and admiring the life of Myrlie Evers Williams can help us all become more active in the continual struggle for the just treatment of all persons here and around the world.

Leroy Seat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. A version of this column also appeared on his blog, The View from this Seat, and is used with permission.