Americans need to remember their right to vote, to speak the truth even if it’s unpopular and to embrace our young people, civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams told a Minneapolis audience on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Evers-Williams conceded that America is challenged today “like never before,” but she said that we will be alright if we continue to believe in justice and equality for everyone.
“We don’t move toward success in a single line,” she said. “We do it together as groups who are concerned about freedom and justice, equality, all of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about.”
Evers-Williams’ comments came at the 27th-annual MLK Holiday Breakfast, an event that celebrates King’s legacy of service and is intended to inspire people to live out his values. The event raised $130,000 for the United Negro College Fund, which provides scholarships for black students and funding to historically black colleges and universities.
Evers-Williams was the wife of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was murdered in 1963 in the driveway of their Jackson, Mississippi, home. She fought for decades for the prosecution of his killer, who was found guilty of the murder in 1994.
Evers-Williams became chair of the NAACP in 1995 and also published two memoirs about her civil rights experiences. She delivered the invocation at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
In her Jan. 16 speech, Evers-Williams congratulated the audience for its role in combating racism and prejudice and encouraged them to continue to believe in America.
“We are a great country if we allow ourselves to be,” she said, paraphrasing a message from King. “We can set the role model for the rest of this world if we choose to be.”
“We need to listen to our youth,” she added, noting that it was the young people who marched and were thrown in jail during the civil rights era.
“Those young people decided that the only thing that they could do was to keep pushing, was to keep doing, to keep sacrificing, and by doing so, perhaps they would live to see a different America,” she said.
She finished her speech by encouraging the audience to stay strong, despite the challenges the country faces and the fatigue they may feel.
“You take that spirit with you,” she said. “America will be better, our children will be safer, and hopefully, all in all, we will be free.”
Challenging the system
Minneapolis NAACP President Jason Sole watched Evers-Williams’ speech later that day and said he was struck by the fact that Evers-Williams was approaching her 84th birthday, a mark he said many in the black community don’t reach.
“For her to say she’s 84, that’s amazing, because a lot of us perish at a young age,” Sole said.
He said the country is in a similar situation as in 1963, the year Evers was assassinated and African-Americans were mired in the fight for civil rights. Societal systems still discriminate against African-Americans, he said, noting his own experience growing up in a segregated area of Chicago, where drugs were the main way to make money.
“When you have people at the bottom rung, you can do whatever you want to do to them,” he said, noting inequities at every level of society.
He pointed to the ongoing trial of a white man charged with shooting and wounding five people at a 2015 protest outside a Minneapolis police precinct as an example of inequity. Allen Scarsella, is charged with shooting the people while they were protesting the police shooting of Jamar Clark, a black man, and the jury is predominately white.
Sole said that isn’t right.
“Black people keep getting excluded from the court room when they’re victimized,” he said. “… Every system needs to be challenged.”
Trump ‘ill informed’
Evers-Williams never explicitly mentioned President-elect Donald Trump in her speech, but in a media briefing after the event, she said a question about the state of America under him made her “ill.”
She declined to elaborate further when asked to explain, other than saying she did not vote for Trump.
When asked about Trump’s tweets attacking Georgia congressman and civil-rights activist John Lewis, she said, “that remark sounds as though the person who made it is terribly ill informed.”
Lewis said on “Meet the Press” in January that he doesn’t consider Trump a legitimate president. He said he thinks the Russians helped get Trump elected and “destroy(ed) the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Trump responded in three messages posted to Twitter, saying that Lewis “should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
Evers-Williams said she wouldn’t get into a public debate on Trump or the state of America but said she would continue to work on things she holds dear, such as freedom, equality, job opportunities and civility.
“I am weary of all of the struggles of the years, but again that’s something that you don’t get rid of,” she said. “It goes with you where you go. And you hope that you’ve left enough behind, in encouragement and direction, for other people to embrace and follow.”
About 2,000 people were in attendance at the breakfast, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Betty McCollum, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Visit tpt.org/martin-luther-king-day-breakfast-minnesota/ for more information on the rebroadcast schedule for the event. Visit mprnews.org/story/2017/01/16/mpr_news_presents to hear a podcast of the event.