Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first woman and layperson to deliver an inaugural invocation Monday. Nearly 50 years ago, Evers-Williams was a young mother in Mississippi tending to her three small children, who she’d allowed to stay up late to watch President John F. Kennedy deliver a historic address on civil rights. They were all still awake after midnight when her husband Medgar Evers, a noted civil-rights activist, arrived home from a meeting with the NAACP. As he carried a box of t-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go,” a bullet fired by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith struck him in the back, and he died less than an hour later.
The struggle for which Medgar Evers gave his life and his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, carried on after his assassination lives on in the present day, as historian Blair L.M. Kelley’s column noted in theGrio. In her invocation, Evers-Williams underscored the underlying, unifying spirit of the civil rights movement while alluding to specific injustices—such as voter disenfranchisement and suppression—that persist today:
“As we sing the words of belief, ‘this is my country,’ let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included. May the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of every woman, man, boy and girl be honored. May all your people, especially the least of these, flourish in our blessed nation. One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised [votes] to today’s expression of a more perfect union.”
Evers-Williams then honored the servicemen and servicewomen laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery, including her late husband, asking that “their spirit infuse our being to work together with respect, enabling us to continue to build this nation, and in so doing we send a message to the world that we are strong, fierce in our strength, and ever vigilant in our pursuit of freedom.” She added a prayer for the president himself and for the families across the nation, concluding with by “[invoking] the prayers of our grandmothers”:
“There’s something within me that holds the reins. There’s something within me that banishes pain. There’s something within me I cannot explain. But all I know America, there is something within. There is something within.”
On Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Evers-Williams discussed her husband’s legacy, and how President Obama and others in the “Joshua Generation”—those building on the work done by civil rights pioneers who sacrificed so much—are doing. So far, she’s encouraged, saying “I have also observed [President Obama’s] seasoning, if you will, over the four years, and I’m very excited about what the second term will bring—not only for him, but for America and the world.”
She also reflected upon “how bitter, how vengeful,” and hopeless she felt after her husband’s murder, but that now, “we have moved past the hatred. We realize that we must be creative, that we must be able to forgive, because in not doing so, we damage ourselves and we’re unable to move forward.”
Harris-Perry followed up on the theme of forgiveness with a question about Newtown, the anger of parents and all those who live in communities victimized by gun violence, and seeking to make policy that isn’t borne of hatred. Watch how Evers-Williams responded in the full interview below.