• Tue. Jun 6th, 2023

Civil Rights icon Myrlie Evers-Williams gifts archival collection to Pomona College

By Patricia Vest

Pomona College

CLAREMONT, Calif., Feb. 09 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) Myrlie Evers-Williams fought for justice for decades after her husband’s assassination, stepped forward to lead the NAACP at a critical time and gave the invocation before a global audience of millions at President Obama’s second inauguration.

Now, as she nears 90, the Civil Rights pioneer has donated her archival collection to her alma mater Pomona College to inspire future generations. The thousands of items, ranging from photos with U.S. presidents to campaign materials to congressional transcripts, offer tangible touchpoints of Evers-Williams’ — and the nation’s — turbulent journey toward justice through the Civil Rights Era.

“Mrs. Evers-Williams has led in so many ways through her persistence, faith and unshakeable commitment to the cause,” said Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr. “The College will tend to this collection to educate and encourage others to push forward on the path she did so much to create. We are honored to be entrusted with her extraordinary legacy of brilliance, strength and — yes — love.”

President John F. Kennedy (center) visits with Myrlie Evers- Williams (far left), widow of Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers. Also pictured: Reena and Darrell Evers, children of Medgar and Myrlie; Charles Evers (far right), brother of Medgar. Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., 21 June 1963. Photograph by Cecil W. Stoughton, White House Photographs. From the Myrlie Evers-Williams Collection, Pomona College.

Pomona College will preserve the collection for both academic and, in time, public access through the Claremont Colleges Library, where archivists are organizing and cataloguing the material spanning six decades. President Starr envisions K-12 students visiting the collection in the years ahead to draw inspiration from a Civil Rights icon with long ties in the region.

Evers-Williams entered the public sphere as a grieving widow after the shocking 1963 assassination of her husband, NAACP official Medgar Evers, in the driveway of their Mississippi home by a White supremacist. The next year, after two hung juries from all-White panels for her husband’s killer, Evers-Williams brought her three children to Claremont, enrolled at Pomona College and started a new life.  

A trailblazer for Black women in the political arena, Evers-Williams ran for U.S. Congress only two years out of college, persisting through skepticism and even scorn while seeking a suburban Southern California seat. A year later, in 1971, she helped launch the bipartisan National Women’s Political Caucus and in time took on prominent civic roles in Los Angeles. All the while, she persisted in seeking the conviction of her husband’s assassin, which finally came in 1994, three decades after the murder, in the case that became the subject of the movie “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

White House meeting with Myrlie Evers-Williams and President Bill Clinton, circa 1993-2001. From the Myrlie Evers-Williams Collection, Pomona College.

In 1995, she was elected to serve as chair of the NAACP, and she was charged with turning around the venerable Civil Rights organization at a low point in its history. In 2012, President Obama turned to Evers-Williams as the first woman and first layperson to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration. Millions of people across the nation and around the globe heard her stirring words. In 2022, Evers-Williams was portrayed by actress Jayme Lawson in the movie, “Till.” 

“I’m thankful for my life, including all of the hardships,” said Evers-Williams, who turns 90 on March 17 and today is retired and living in Southern California. “I have learned so much. I have learned tolerance. I have learned love, genuine love of people. I have learned how to get knocked down and get back up without blaming anyone. 

“God has given me the ability to overlook all of the hurts, harms and dangers and look toward the future and what that could bring and what I might contribute to that future. I’ll leave it at that.”

Consisting of more than 250 linear feet of documents, ephemera and artifacts, the collection donated by Evers-Williams includes photos of her with presidents ranging from Kennedy to Carter to Clinton; buttons, pamphlets and photos from her own 1970 run for Congress; transcripts and correspondence from her 2007 testimony before Congress; and  correspondence related to her preparation from the 2012 Obama inauguration. Personal items include her Pomona College ID card, a hardhat from her time as a Los Angeles Public Works commissioner and the dress she wore while performing piano at Carnegie Hall, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

President Barack Obama embraces Myrlie Evers-Williams during her visit in the Oval Office, June 4, 2013. The President met with the Evers family to commemorate the approaching 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ death. Photograph by Pete Souza, White House Photographs. From the Myrlie Evers-Williams Collection, Pomona College.

The collection focuses on her life after moving to California in 1964; the Mississippi state archives are home to the Medgar Wiley and Myrlie Beasley Evers Papers, covering their early years in that state.

Evers-Williams says her time at Pomona, where she graduated with a sociology degree in 1968, changed the course of her life and that the College was the natural choice for stewarding the collection. “I don’t want to get too emotional,” said Evers-Williams. “But it was Pomona College, it was the teachers here who helped me move ahead and come out of this feeling of drowning … And it was my being here at Pomona with the instructors here and the other people who did not smother me. They gave me space. But they surrounded me by love, understanding and saying, ‘Yes, you can.’”

A liberal arts college, Pomona is known for small classes, a challenging curriculum and a range of student research opportunities. Pomona has been named by The New York Times as one of the top colleges “doing the most for the American dream.”

Myrlie Evers-Williams. From the Myrlie Evers-Williams Collection, Pomona College.