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Myrlie Evers-Williams: opening doors to a closed society

 

In all my years, I’ve never gained so much insight and knowledge in one sitting. I sat in Fulton Chapel this past Friday listening to the wisdom of a civil rights activist’s widow, lecturer, advocate and, most of all, a black woman. 

As I sat and listened to the beautifully constructed words of Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, I was overwhelmed by her willingness to engage in open, honest dialogue. Arguably, that speech was by far one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard in my life. 

Evers-Williams truly opened the doors to a closed society, a society where whites fear the complexities of race and blacks often negate the discussion in an effort to be progressive. 

Beginning her speech with the Ole Miss Creed and discussing the values within it, she captured the audience, arguing, “To me it summarizes the heart and soul and mission of this institution of higher learning.” Evers-Williams went on to challenge students to learn the creed and understand its meaning. She also highlighted the changes that have been made at Ole Miss since her last visit and the death of her husband. 

There were many defining moments throughout Evers-Williams’ speech, but most notable was when she spoke of how she dealt with her husband’s death.

Evers-Williams told the story of how each day she would wake up with a smile on her face as if everything was OK, and when others shared their condolences, she would smile casually and say, “Thank you, I’m fine.” But, when she got home at night, Evers-Williams would find herself pouring her soul out in desperation to seek revenge. 

Evers-Williams finally learned to do something positive rather than negative. Challenging the crowd to do the same, she said, “When you find yourself in despair and seeking vengeance, do good.” 

Her unique ability to characterize her disappointments and how she channeled her negative energy into positives was quite remarkable. She grabbed the audience’s attention in ways many of us can only dream of being able to do; it was life altering.  

The most emotional and defining moment for me was when Evers-Williams reminded us of how it’s possible that we (black students) are able to be here. Responding to questions as to whether or not black students at Ole Miss were aware of all that was given for us to become students at the university, she said, “Not because of your intellect and etc., but because someone paid a tremendous price for you to be here — they didn’t do it by themselves.” 

Evers-Williams took us through conversations she had with Evers when he was seeking admission to the Ole Miss Law School. She highlighted the challenges they faced as a family; they had one child and were expecting another and couldn’t afford it. Not only that, she told the story of her late husband’s rejection to the Ole Miss Law School and how he then helped finance and organize James Meredith’s admission. 

Finally, Evers-Williams talked of the need for a multi-generational conversation. She said, “Some way there has to be a coming together of the ages — we need one another.” Even further, she said, “I hope for the unification of the young and old — poor and rich.” 

Sounding like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Evers-Williams concluded suggesting that “perhaps one day we will not allow color to be a barrier.”  

In light of my subject, “Myrlie Evers-Williams: opening a closed society,” it is fair to say that she set a frame by which we can begin a dialogue about the harsh realities of this society’s past, what this society can become working together and, most evident, a discussion about the sacrifices made to get to this point.

Cortez Moss is a senior public policy leadership major from Calhoun City. Follow him on Twitter at @Cortez_Moss.