Alcorn dedicates library auditorium to Medgar Evers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 20, 2003

ALCORN STATE &045; The life and death of Medgar Wiley Evers can be a building block for the future, his widow and partner said Wednesday at the dedication of an Alcorn State University auditorium named after the slain civil rights activist.

&uot;Take the essence of this man, and use it Š building it into your goals,&uot; said Myrlie Evers-Williams, who, like her first husband, is a graduate of ASU, a historically black university near Lorman and the first land grant institution established for African-American students.

In brief remarks, at once reflective and humorous, Evers-Williams conceded that her emotions ran the gamut as she returned to the campus after a long absence and especially for an occasion dedicated to the man she married and worked alongside after meeting him there.

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&uot;I had hoped Alcorn State one day would recognize Medgar Wiley Evers as one of their esteemed graduates,&uot; she said. &uot;Medgar deserves this recognition, and it will serve this university and all of us well into the future.&uot;

Wind whipped the thick covering at the top of J.D. Boyd Library and threatened to spoil the surprise of the unveiling. Several hundred people on hand for the occasion had a quick glimpse of some of the large block letters placed on the outside brick wall to denote the new name of an auditorium inside the library.

When the time came to show off the name, however, ASU President Dr. Clinton Bristow ordered the unveiling and led the applause after giving a solemn tribute to the man being honored.

Wind blew over potted plants edging the speaker’s podium at the outdoor ceremony, where Alcorn students set a fitting tone with inspirational songs under a near-perfect blue sky. Speakers paid tribute to Evers and introduced dozens of dignitaries who were on hand for the event.

Born near Decatur in 1925, Evers was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and served during World War II in Normandy. After the war, he entered Alcorn State, pursuing a major in business administration and graduating in 1952.

In the 1950s, Evers and his wife worked to establish local chapters of the NAACP in the Mississippi Delta before moving to Jackson, where they organized another NAACP office and Medgar gained national attention for his activism in civil rights.

In June 1963, Evers, who had spoken out against violence throughout his activist years, was shot in the back as he stood in the driveway at his Jackson home. He died from the assassin’s bullet.

Byron de la Beckwith, an avowed white supremacist, was tried twice for the murder in the 1960s but was not convicted. However, in 1994, a new trial ended with a murder conviction for Beckwith and a sentence of life in prison.

Beckwith died of natural causes in January 2001 while serving in prison.

For ASU academic counselor Nettie King, who sat on a concrete step toward the back of the standing-room-only crowd, the dedication was an important moment for her personally and for the university.

&uot;It’s a historic moment for me,&uot; she said. &uot;It’s a once-in-a-lifetime for me. It’s fitting to have his name remembered at the university.&uot;

Natchez Alderman Ricky Gray said that it would be hard to imagine what life would have been like without the work of activists such as Medgar Evers.

&uot;If he hadn’t done what he did, I might not be standing here today as an elected official,&uot; Gray said. &uot;He paved the way not just for black folks but for all folks.&uot;

Gray and Natchez Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith traveled together to the dedication. Smith said he was there as a fervent supporter of Alcorn.

&uot;Alcorn is so much a part of our community. I want them to continue to expand in Natchez. They can build an impact with their business school the same as they have done with their nursing school.&uot;

Evers worked tirelessly to get black Mississippians to register to vote. His style was aggressive, Evers-Williams said. &uot;He was single in mind and purpose. He helped to build a strong people; he helped to build a strong state; he helped to build a strong nation.&uot;

The husband and wife talked often about the danger he could face as a black activist during the turbulent early 1960s. Evers was all too aware but undaunted, Evers-Williams said.

&uot;He said to me, ‘if I have to die to accomplish these things, I will gladly die.’ When I asked him why you, he said, ‘if I don’t do it, who will?’&uot;

State Rep. Phillip West assured the crowd that his rallying for the university would continue, as he did his part to get state funding for projects at ASU.

Like others, he spoke of the debt owed to Medgar Evers. Speaking to Evers-Williams, he said, &uot;The life of your husband Š paved the way for me.&uot;

Evers-Williams recalled her aunt and grandmother bringing her from Vicksburg to enter Alcorn State as a freshman and giving her the parting advice of staying away from &uot;those veterans.&uot;

She first saw Medgar as she leaned against an electrical pole near the president’s house and the football team came running up, still in uniform.

&uot;Medgar came over to me and said, ‘don’t lean on that electric pole; you might get electrocuted.’ I didn’t tell him. I had already been electrocuted.&uot;

Their romance, marriage and partnership were inspirational to Evers-Williams. &uot;He was willing to pay the price.&uot;