PITTSFORD — If Americans aren’t more vigilant about what the federal government is doing in the name of fighting terror, they may lose the civil rights for which so many suffered and died, according to Myrlie Evers-Williams, civil rights activist.
Former chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Evers-Williams made her remarks during a speech in the Callahan Theater at Nazareth College Jan. 16 to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. Like King, Evers-Williams’ husband, Medgar Evers, was killed for his civil rights activism. Evers was gunned down in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home in June 1963.
Evers-Williams expressed concern over recent revelations in the news media that the federal government has engaged in domestic spying to gather foreign intelligence in the war on terror. Proponents of the spying have argued that the government needs to conduct such activities as warrantless searches in order to stem possible terrorist attacks. Civil-liberties activists have countered that such activities potentially threaten everyone’s constitutional rights.
Evers-Williams noted that during the 1960s governmental authorities wiretapped the phones of civil rights activists such as her husband and said she feared American freedoms were being eroded in a similar manner today.
“Are we willing to sit back today and take a risk with these freedoms? Not without a fight!” she said as the audience applauded.
The federal government wasn’t the only target of Evers-Williams’ ire. She noted that citizens who don’t vote are throwing away a precious right paid for in blood. To remind her that her husband died for the right to vote, she said she carries with her his bloodstained poll-tax card, which he had on him when he was shot.
“You don’t have to be beaten anymore, you don’t have to be killed,” she said, addressing the college students in the crowd. “The right to vote, our young people, our young adults, is something that you cannot not take seriously.”
Evers-Williams was not entirely pessimistic in her speech, and noted that much had changed in America since she grew up in the segregated South.
“I have lived long enough to see changes take place in this country that I never thought would take place before,” she said.
For example, the act of making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday 20 years ago was initially opposed by some, she said, but no more. As proof, she pointed out that she had seen a newspaper advertisement touting a Martin Luther King Day sale.
“How American is that?” she said as the audience laughed. “I guess the holiday has finally been accepted.”
She added that in recent years, those who suffered at the hands of civil rights opponents have won many victories. She noted, for example, that the murderers of several civil rights workers, including the man who killed her husband, have been brought to justice. In 1994, former Ku Klux Klansman Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of Medgar Evers’ murder. In 2001, De La Beckwith died in prison while still appealing his conviction.
Two all-white juries deadlocked the first two times De La Beckwith was tried for Evers’ murder, but a third jury of eight blacks and four whites convicted him. Despite the decades it took to convict De La Beckwith, Evers-Williams noted she refused to give up, even when people told her she was crazy to keep pursuing the case.
“I made a promise to Medgar Evers that if anything ever happened to him, and I was still alive, I would see that justice would be done,” she said.