Volume 12 Number 1
Watching Myrlie Fly

01 March 1999

When her husband Medgar was killed, Myrlie Evers-Williams realized, she says, that it's not what happens to you that matters; it's how you deal with it.
Racism is often subtle these days in the United States. It is more likely to come in a Brooks Brothers suit than in a Ku Klux Klan robe. But it is still the biggest issue that needs to be tackled here. This is the view of Myrlie Evers-Williams, an African American and one of America's most prominent civil rights leaders, who lives in Oregon.

Myrlie is in the news these days as she travels the country promoting her new book, Watch Me Fly (Little, Brown and Company). She has come a long way since the sad day in 1963 when her husband, Medgar, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi, was murdered. 'Medgar died for the NAACP,' she says. 'I decided to live for the NAACP.' Indeed, she became its national chair. Her book is subtitled, 'What I learned on the way to becoming the woman I was meant to be.'

Here is a woman who had to endure the sudden death of one much loved husband, Medgar, through an assassin's bullet and of another, Walt, through a long bout of cancer, a single mother who brought up a family in adverse financial circumstances and persevered in getting a degree at Pomona College. She became among other things Director of Consumer Affairs at Atlantic Richfield, and on the 25th anniversary of Medgar's death, Commissioner of the Board of Public Works in Los Angeles. She also stood for Congress and wrote a book, For us, the living. In more recent years she took the helm at the NAACP to help restore its integrity and effectiveness. Walt had encouraged her to stand for the NAACP post and he was able to appreciate her election shortly before he died.

All the time she had to contend with sexism, racism, open or subtle, death threats, and even thoughts of suicide. 'I was terribly depressed,' she remembers. The poet Maya Angelou calls this woman of faith 'a beacon of hope'.

When her husband Medgar was killed, she realized, she says, that it's not what happens to you that matters; it's how you deal with it. But she was in rebellion against God. Five years ago her husband's killer was finally brought to justice. She had been 'raging, brimming over', as she puts it, 'with deep, dark loathing and despair', secretly imagining her revenge, torturing whoever was responsible for Medgar's death. Now, because of the verdict, she says, healing finally feels possible for her soul and for the soul of Mississippi.

Many people ask Myrlie, 'How did you do it all?' She says in her book, 'The short answer is: a day at a time. The long answer is that I simply stayed the course with a powerful belief in God and in myself. I was able to go that last mile because I had courage and an abiding faith.' She says that anyone who becomes involved in politics needs not only a thick skin but an especially strong set of ethics. 'No matter how much mud was slung in my direction,' she writes, 'I resisted resorting to similar tactics. I refused to spread lies or gossip.'

Ruth J Simmons, President of Smith College, writes of Watch Me Fly, 'Just when we thought we had learned everything about the pain and havoc caused by hatemongers and bigots, Myrlie Evers-Williams's book arrives triumphantly to expose bigotry as a losing strategy. This is a book that men and women should read to understand not only how to rebuild from the ashes but also how tragedy and loss can ultimately embolden a life and make it soar.'

Watch Me Fly is a challenge to white folk in general and an inspiration to women everywhere. It deserves careful reading with its frankness, its revelations, and its advice wrung from hard experience.

Coretta Scott King writes, 'This beautiful and poignant memoir contains many insightful lessons about meeting the challenges of family, career, and social activism with courage, grace and dignity. It should be of compelling interest to everyone seeking a deeper understanding of civil rights history, the meaning of womanhood and the struggle for personal fulfilment.'

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