Evers' widow lives with pain, triumph

February, a month of cruel anniversaries, tests a woman of courage and faith.

February 19, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

BEND, Ore. - Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of NAACP martyr Medgar Evers, calls February her "TNT month" - tears and thanks.

The anniversaries of her eldest son's and second husband's deaths and the conviction of her first husband's killer all fall this month. It was also on a snow-dusted New York day in February 1995 that she was elected chairman of the NAACP board and began erasing its $3.2 million debt and repairing its tarnished reputation.

Ten years later, as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathers at the New York Hilton today for its 97th annual meeting, Evers-Williams will be there.

And the nation's oldest civil rights group is once again at a crossroads, battling an IRS audit that its current chairman, Julian Bond, denounces as politically motivated and searching for a new president after the abrupt resignation in November of Kweisi Mfume.

Evers plans to endorse Bond in the election for chairman and to speak out strongly - the only way she knows how - about NAACP programs, finances and the eventual successor to Mfume. She considers the NAACP family, like her own - at times dynamic, at times dysfunctional - and she wants to ensure its continuing relevance.

It's why she recently took her daily companion - an aging, jovial black Lab named Sugar - to a kennel and embarked on her pilgrimage of connecting flights from Oregon's desert country to New York. She walks these days with a bum knee, bum foot and bad back. She carries with her medicine prescribed for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and she prays that no one will shake her hand firmly. Arthritis has flared up.

Hers is a story of such triumph and tragedy that you'd think she could rest. She can't, even though she turns 72 next month, nearly twice the age of Evers when he was killed by a bullet in the back.

"This is the last phase of my life," she said before leaving her home here, a large split-level redwood house shared with Sugar. "I may live another 30 years, but between now and when my parting time comes, I know I have something more to offer. But what is it that I can do without killing myself?"

Rescuing the NAACP

Her contribution to the NAACP has already been immense.

"Although other people take credit for it, it is she that paid off more than half of our indebtedness," said Bond, who succeeded her when she retired in 1998. "Not only has she spent her life involved with the NAACP, but she has given two husbands to the struggle for justice."

Medgar Evers' killer, Mississippi white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted of the 1963 shooting 11 years ago on Feb. 5. Her second husband, Walter Edward Williams, a gentle, 6-foot-4 California longshoreman and civil rights activist, died of prostate cancer 10 years ago on Feb. 22. Her eldest son, 47-year-old Darrell Kenyatta Evers - "My precious Darrell," she calls him - died of colon cancer four years ago on Feb. 18, a wrenching inversion of the natural order that can still startle her awake.

"I thought losing two wonderful men would be the worst I would go through," Evers-Williams said of her husbands. "It wasn't."

Listening to her son's labored wheezing as he lay dying in a California hospital was the worst. She had held her second husband as he died, so she knew the haunting sound that marks the end. "The rattle," she called it, grimly.

She said she steeled herself, sat at the foot of her son's bed and began to sing gospels, soft like a lullaby.

"Precious Lord take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. ... "

A month earlier, Darrell, who was 9 when he watched his father die clutching a pile of NAACP "Jim Crow Must Go" T-shirts, had left his mother a recorded phone message.

"I just want to thank you for all you've done for me in these last months, weeks, days," he said, trying to sound upbeat even as his health waned terribly. "It really means a lot to me, Mom. I love you."

Evers-Williams saved the message to a CD and stored a copy in a safe deposit box. Listening to it replayed, she cried.

"This wound is raw, inflamed," she said. "I don't think I will ever get over this one."

Weight of tasks

It's no wonder she wishes she could altogether skip February. On a recent, cold morning here, she sat momentarily still in her Toyota Land Cruiser, parked outside her office. Her fingers rubbed at her temples, and she clenched her eyes shut. In the CD player were the Commodores ("Brick House") and Wild Cherry ("Play that Funky Music"), turned suddenly off. She had intended to use the music as a pick-me-up, like a strong cup of coffee. It hadn't worked.

"Let me explain," she said finally, smiling weakly, "I woke up at 4 o'clock this morning. I couldn't go back to sleep."

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