State icons honored as justice champions: Evers-Williams, Winter draw standing ovations at dinner

Published in the Clarion Ledger

Jimmie E. Gates

It was like honoring royalty as a sellout crowd of 600 people gathered in downtown Jackson to say “we love you” to two Mississippi icons.

It was a night to show love for a woman of courage, Myrlie Evers-Williams, and the man who championed education reform in the state, former Gov. William Winter.

“We are blessed to have two of the greatest living Mississippians here,” said former state Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks, who introduced Winter at the annual Mississippi Center for Justice Champions of Justice Dinner.

Both Evers-Williams and Winter received standing ovations from the crowd.
Martha Bergmark, founding president of the Mississippi Center for Justice, said it was the largest crowd in the nine years of the Champions of Justice Dinner and the center raised $360,000 for its programs.

Attorney Alan Moore, who introduced Evers-Williams, said it was one of the greatest blessings of his life.

“She never stopped speaking out for civil rights and never left Mississippi behind,” Moore said.

Evers-Williams is the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. She forged her own history after his death.

Evers-Williams has been a civil rights activist and leader since the 1950s, when she worked alongside her husband to end racial segregation in Mississippi.

On June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, was assassinated in the driveway of their Jackson home.

Ten days later, FBI agents arrested Byron De La Beckwith of Greenwood, who was tried twice in 1964 but went free after all-white juries deadlocked.

With the trials ended, the memories grew too painful, and Myrlie Evers and her three children left Mississippi and moved to California. She married Walter Williams, who died in 1995. In 1970, she followed an unsuccessful run for Congress with a successful career in business, eventually serving on the Los Angeles’ Public Works Commission.

In 1989, she pushed for the reopening of her late husband’s case, and five years later, a jury convicted Beckwith, who was sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 2001.

When she took over as chairman of the national NAACP in 1995, the organization was teetering near bankruptcy with a debt of $5 million. Three years later, she left the organization with a $2 million surplus.

Evers came home to Mississippi this year as a distinguished scholar-in-residence at Alcorn State University, her and Medgar’s alma mater. It is where the couple met.

“I will be forever grateful for this recognition,” Evers-Williams said. “I accept it not for myself, but for all those in this room. Mississippi has not come this far by the effort of just a couple people but by the effort of all of us … I love Mississippi. Mississippi has come a long way and we have much to be proud of.”

Evers-Williams and Winter developed a strong bond of friendship over the years. She donated Medgar Evers’ papers, documents and other artifacts to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History that bears Winter’s name.

Evers-Williams said she cherishes her friendship with Winter and said she remembers him opening the Governor’s Mansion to her family at a time when it might not have been a popular thing to do.

Winter, governor from 1980-1984, is a revered leader in promoting high-quality public education and racial reconciliation in Mississippi and nationally.

Banks said Winter is “a hero to justice in the state of Mississippi going back to 1947.”
Winter said Thursday’s program was special to him because he was in Evers-Williams’ company .
“It’s like the rookie guard on the Chicago Bulls who scored one point and Michael Jordan scored 70 points and said I will always remember the night when Michael Jordan and I scored 71 points,” Winter said in a tribute to Evers-Williams.

Winter’s Education Reform Act of 1982 mandated compulsory school attendance, higher standards for teacher and student performance, and statewide public kindergarten.

In 1997, Winter was appointed to President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race, and in 1999, the University of Mississippi established the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which works to build more inclusive communities by promoting racial diversity and citizen engagement. In 2005, he helped to lead Gulf Coast recovery efforts following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.