Myrlie Evers-Williams encourages UM Graduates to ‘Soar and Be Free’

Myrlie Evers-Williams (center) receives the Humanitarian Award from Ole Miss Saturday. Evers-Williams also addressed graduating seniors in the commencement address. (Ole Miss photo)

From Ole Miss News

Civil rights pioneer presented with Humanitarian Award; reflects upon painful past, acknowledges progress while calling for better world

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.

Myrlie Evers-Williams (center) receives the Humanitarian Award from Ole Miss Saturday. Evers-Williams also spoke to graduating seniors in the commencement address. (Ole Miss photo)

“I believe in you, and I hope you believe in yourselves, too,” Evers-Williams said Saturday (May 11) 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.”

Visibly moved, Evers-Williams didn’t make an acceptance speech. Later, during a press conference, she did comment about what the honor meant to her.

“I was very emotional about that (the award),” she said. “That’s why I did not get up to say ‘thank you.’ I deeply appreciate it. It speaks to all the emotional feelings I’ve gone through about the University of Mississippi.”

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.

The first Humanitarian Award was presented to Jim and Sally Barksdale in 2001 by then-Chancellor Robert Khayat, who noted that “we recognize individuals who have demonstrated extraordinary leadership qualities including courage, initiative, creativity, grace, generosity, personal integrity and sacrifices that affect human welfare and create social reform.” The second Humanitarian Award was presented in 2003 to Gov. William and Elise Winter, who were in attendance Saturday.

Evers-Williams was nostalgic, poignant and inspirational during her delivery. She reflected upon the painful 50-plus-year history between the Evers family and Ole Miss, acknowledged the progress that has been made in human equality and envisioned future evolution in societal attitudes.

“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.”

“I believe that this class, more than any others before it, has the opportunity to make everything good. I prefer to believe in the good of all humankind, that there are more people of good will than those who do not feel that way.”

Initially underneath clouds that gave way to sunny skies, the Vicksburg native spoke to graduating students, their families and other guests in the Grove. 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.”

Among the attendees, Taurus Nash of Shelby came to watch his son, Jontarius Haywood, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism.

“This is a great achievement for him, particularly as a young black male graduating from a historically white university,” Nash said. “It’s very exciting and we feel very welcome being here.”

Linda Barrack, of Hattiesburg, said she was excited to be in the Grove to watch her granddaughter, Mary Beth Barrack, graduate with a bachelor’s degree in public policy leadership.

“I feel a lot of pride as she’s the third generation of our family to graduate from Ole Miss,” said Barrack, who was in Oxford with four other members of the family. “I’m sure her grandfather would be equally as proud of her if he were alive.”

Following the general ceremony, the College of Liberal Arts and the Oxford campus’ eight schools held separate ceremonies to present baccalaureate, master’s, doctor of pharmacy and law diplomas. Former Gov. Haley Barbour was the speaker for the School of Law and Sharyn Alfonsi was the speaker for the Meek School of Journalism and New Media.

Recipients of doctor of philosophy degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony Friday evening in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Three awards were presented by the Graduate School. The Group Award for Excellence in Promoting Inclusiveness in Graduate Education went to the Ph.D. Program in the Patterson School of Accountancy. Associate Provost Maurice Eftink received the Individual Award for Excellence in Promoting Inclusiveness in Graduate Education. Alan Gross, professor of psychology, was presented the Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring.

During Saturday’s ceremony, William W. Berry III, assistant professor of law, was honored as the recipient of the 2013 Elise M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, presented annually to the campuswide outstanding teacher.

Mahmoud A. Elsohly, research professor and professor of pharmaceutics in UM’s National Center for Natural Products Research, was named the recipient of the university’s sixth Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award.

The university also recognized the winners of this year’s Frist Student Service Awards: Marvin C. Wilson, associate dean for academic and student affairs at the School of Pharmacy, and Amy Saxon, operations supervisor for summer school and online programs at the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education.

Evers-Williams has been a frequent visitor to campus in recent years. In March 2012, she delivered the keynote address for the university’s “50 Years of Integration” observance, and she participated in a panel discussion of her late husband’s life and work April 5 at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.

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