URBANA — Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers said she wants to challenge the people of today to work to make the world a better place.
“Do you have a responsibility to make things better? Yes, you do,” Evers said. “We all do — whether it is through verse, whether it is through music or whether it is through dreams. Shift and change and shape them into being successes.”
Evers, the widow of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi native who was murdered in 1963 after fighting to overturn segregation, was the keynote speaker Wednesday night at the University of Illinois’ celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Evers, the first female chair of the NAACP, spoke at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an order issued by President Abraham Lincoln declaring that all slaves in the Confederate states not under Union military control “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
Evers said she felt a combination of love and hate when her husband was killed outside their home in Jackson, Miss., from the love that she felt for a man who worked for civil rights to the hate she felt for the person who killed him.
“I fantasized at night what I could do to make sure somebody paid for his death,” she said.
That somebody was Byron De La Beckwith, who a member of Mississippi’s White Citizens Council. After two inconclusive trials in the 1960s, De La Beckwith was convicted in 1994 and later died in prison in 2001 at the age of 80.
Evers said that racism still exists today.
“It is critically important for Americans of all ages to know the history of this country, to see how different policies were used to keep people down, to keep people from achieving what America says it gives, and that is justice and equality for all,” she said.
Evers challenged young people to use technology to communicate their ideas.
“With the issues that we have in America today, there is no reason why we cannot find some type of middle ground where we can communicate with each other our ideas and our knowledge,” she said.
UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise called Evers “one of the most influential women of our time.”
“Her life is a walking testament to the power of one person who can make things right,” Wise said.
Evers received the Presidential Award and Medallion in recognition of her life of activism for social justice and service to humanity.
UI President Robert Easter said Evers helped to uplift society during more than a half-century as one of the nation’s leading voices for fairness, social justice and diversity.
“Dr. Evers’ vision, courage and perseverance are an inspiration for us all,” Easter said. “Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, her ideals and belief in what is best for society never wavered. At the UI, we share her commitment and thank her for her tireless service.”
Evers joins 17 other Presidential Award and Medallion winners since the award program was created in 1984 to recognize individuals whose lives have had a profound impact on the UI.