MLK speaker names apathy as biggest problem

Thursday, January 18, 2007
Myrlie Evers-Williams, left, and Marcia Walker met Wednesday after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner at the Show Me Center. Walker was a member of the jury that in 1994 convicted Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. (Kit Doyle)

Myrlie Evers-Williams paid a high price to move the United States toward racial equality.

She endured several years of terror, teaching her children to drop to the floor if they heard a loud noise outside their house and constantly hoping her husband would return home safely. The highest price she paid was when her husband, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, was gunned down outside the couple's Jackson, Miss., home in 1963.

But the high price she, her husband, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others paid will have bought nothing if the United States, especially the black population, allows apathy to erase the gains the country has made since, Evers-Williams told the crowd at the Show Me Center Wednesday night.

Evers-Williams was the keynote speaker at Southeast Missouri State University's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Dinner, where she addressed a sold-out audience of about 1,000 people.

Evers-Williams asked what was the biggest problem confronting the black community and the freedoms it enjoys.

"I feel that it's apathy: those who feel we don't have to be concerned about anything directly related to civil rights," Evers-Williams said.

That apathy that has made younger generations forget their civic duty and the power they can exercise at the ballot box, she said.

"One vote does count. It counts if you vote, it counts if you don't vote, but at least you will have some say-so in shaping the face of your particular area, your state, your nation," Evers-Williams said.

Racism still exists today, she said, but in a different form. Instead of looking for white hoods, Evers-Williams told the audience to look at the power structure, and racism will still show its face.

"I'm not sure it will ever leave," Evers-Williams said. "It seems to be a part of human nature."

But hope can be found if people make sure younger generations know the reasons for the struggle and the price people like Medgar Evers paid, his widow said.

Evers-Williams used her experience of witnessing her husband's death and her subsequent crusade for justice to illustrate the strength of commitment.

At first she hated her husband's killer and his supporters, she said, but then she remembered her slain husband had taught her not to hate them. She turned that hate into the conviction to make sure her husband's killers were brought to justice, she said.

That kind of commitment, that kind of perseverance is what will make sure the prices paid by those slain and terrorized in the fight for civil rights won't be in vain, Evers-Williams said.

When the dinner ended, Evers-Williams met one of the jurors who convicted her husband's killer, Byron De La Beckwith, at his third murder trial in 1994. Marcia Walker, who grew up in Cape Girardeau, was one of four whites who served on the 12-member jury. She was recognized at the dinner.

"It's one of those occasions where you really don't know what to say," Walker said before meeting Evers-Williams. "I'm glad we were able to put things to rest for her and her family."

After the speeches, the two women met on the floor of the Show Me Center, locked in an embrace. They spoke for several minutes in low voices.

Walker declined to recount what the two talked about.

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