From President Obama continuing the National Day of Service tradition, to taking the oath of office with his hand on the King family bible, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an unmistakable presence throughout Inauguration weekend.
Dr. King’s birthday was formally observed Monday and it seems natural that there would be some sort of reference to the civil rights movement during the proceedings in the form of Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers and the former chairwoman of the NAACP, who delivered the inaugural invocation.
Evers-Williams is one of a legion of women whose contribution to the struggle for civil rights too often goes overlooked. She sat at the table on Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry when the host said:
“I both love and hate the King memorial. Every time I look at it, I think, ‘Thank goodness it exists,’ and ‘That man did not emerge from a rock!’ He emerged from a movement.”
Why, then, have so many other names been relegated to historical oblivion? Evers-Williams blamed the Fourth Estate, saying that the media decided that Dr. King was the only person of importance in the movement. “When he was killed, the media asked, ‘Who will your leader be?’ My question was, ‘Why not embrace all the others who gave so much, who did so much, and include them in this?’” She then recalled Dr. King stating that he was never alone in his fight, and that “we are all leaders.”
Joy Reid, managing editor at theGrio, remarked that embodying movements in one person made them easier to defeat, and that the media played into that. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Council brought the focus back to women in the movement, who were the “backbone” in various stages of the movement.
For example, Rosa Parks: “It’s as if she just stood up out of frustration…Rosa Parks was the tip of a spear that had been used and prepared to challenge the segregation of the time.” He then praised Evers-Williams for her chairwomanship of the NAACP in the 1990s, echoing a common sentiment that her leadership helped rescue the organization from irrelevance and dissolution.
Harris-Perry also brought in a parallel to President Obama his last two winning elections: the first which focused on the man and his historical import, and the second more about the suppression of those who supported him, making it an “us” narrative. Poet and playwright Elizabeth Alexander—who delivered the poem at the president’s first inauguration—argued that while “symbolic figures do coalesce,” the president never sought to make it about him, and that “people don’t pop out of nowhere.”
The people who comprise the “nowhere” that so often goes ignored were highlighted by Evers-Williams, when she movingly recalled a nameless woman who came to the NAACP office every Saturday afternoon when her husband Medgar was a field secretary in Mississippi:
“She would come in, and she would put her hand in her dress, in her bosom—and she said, ‘Mr. Evers, I don’t have much to give today, but I want to leave this dollar.’ This wet handkerchief with a few dollar bills in it that she had worked so hard for in homes of others who did not respect her, who did not care for her.
“Some way, we have to remember these other women, without names, existed—and that they fueled the fight for justice and equality as well.”