Beyond the wives of famous men: Myrlie Evers-Williams

Writing fictional accounts of the women involved with influential men presents the challenge of making the women strong enough to keep their story from being overshadowed by the men’s.

Medgar and Myrlie Evers on their wedding day
Medgar and Myrlie Evers on their wedding day, Christmas Eve 1951. She was 18.

An article a few months back in the Washington Post gave me some food for thought by offering insight into the marriage of one such woman: Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was gunned down in the driveway of his home on June 12, 1963.

Krissah Thompson wrote that “more than any of the other civil rights widows, Myrlie Evers showed America her rage…during a time when black anger was not an acceptable display of emotion.”

Apparently, she was not above showing Medgar her anger. Myrlie recounts a story of passionately arguing a point with her husband, but he “gave her that smile-smirk of his and headed for the door.” She threw a saucer at him, which missed, and he left, laughing. Myrlie said:

He was human. He enjoyed getting me to that point. Everybody said to me, ‘Oh, you’re so nice. You’re so nice.’ But he would say, ‘She has fire within her.’

Myrlie Evers-Williams giving the invocation at Obama's inauguration
Myrlie Evers-Williams giving the invocation at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration earlier this year

He encouraged her to be a leader in her own right, and she became an even stronger one after his death. When she finally helped bring her husband’s killer to justice, she began to transcend her grief. “So, too, did she rise above the tropes of widowhood that sought to define and limit her as a woman,” Thompson wrote.

They still share a special connection. At the end of the article, Evers-Williams, now 80 years old, said she sometimes

talks to Medgar in that inside voice. On a recent day, she said, ‘Medgar, I’m tired. It’s been 50 years.’ She heard his voice and pictured his face with that sly smile. ‘Nobody told you to put in 50 years,’ she heard.

It’s easy to get caught up in the history and the myth, and it’s good to be reminded that there are complex, human relationships at the center of it all.

In my research, I also came across the telegram below in which Myrlie reaches out to the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy:

Myrlie Evers telegram to Jackie Kennedy

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