By Edwin Smith/University of Mississippi
OXFORD – Declaring her belief in their individual and combined power, renowned civil rights activist and author Myrlie Evers-Williams challenged University of Mississippi graduating seniors to become active in making the state, nation and world a better place for all people.
“I believe in you, and I hope you believe in yourselves, too,” Evers-Williams said Saturday as she delivered the main address at the university’s 160th Commencement. “Soar! Not only for yourselves, nor just for the betterment of Mississippi, but for betterment of all mankind. Soar, and be free.”
Evers-Williams, who worked for more than 30 years to seek justice for the 1963 murder of her well-known civil rights activist husband, Medgar Evers, is a former chairwoman of the NAACP and is widely credited with restoring the organization’s reputation and saving it from bankruptcy. Most recently, she delivered the invocation at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, becoming the first woman to deliver a prayer at a presidential inauguration.
“The lifelong work of Dr. Evers-Williams to keep her husband’s memory alive and to progress his dream has been pivotal in the pathway from adoption of laws calling for fairness to the adoption of fairness into our societal expectations and interpersonal relationships,” said Chancellor Dan Jones, who presented the third University of Mississippi Humanitarian Award to the speaker, honoring her and her slain husband’s memory.
“You helped deliver many from the oppression of injustice and others from the oppression of hate. The denial of admission to the University of Mississippi for your husband was an expression of institutionalized injustice in this university, this state and this nation. As we recognize the two of you today, we offer our regret and apology for that injustice to you, your family and to countless others. We are grateful for your sacrifice and for your remarkable lives.”
In 1954 – the year the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Board of Education declared all public education entities open to all citizens regardless of race – Medgar Evers applied for admission to the UM School of Law. After denial of his admission, he committed his life to justice and fairness for all through work as the field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. His commitment to justice eventually led to his martyrdom, which was a tipping point in the struggle for civil rights in this country.
“You all have the power – power to do what is right, to do what is just,” Evers-Williams said. “I hope that you realize and take seriously the roles you will play in your communities, the state, nation and the world.”
This year’s graduating class included nearly 2,500 spring candidates for undergraduate and graduate degrees, plus more than 900 August graduates.
“Will you be an eagle or will you just be a bird hiding from the storm and waiting for it to be over?” Evers-Williams asked. “I truly hope you’ll use your strength as eagles to pass on the good works, good deeds this society needs.”