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Myrlie Evers opens up about her marriage to civil rights icon Medgar Evers. After his murder, she took up his fight.

Myrlie Evers opens up in exclusive interview
Myrlie Evers opens up about marriage to civil rights icon Medgar Evers 12:29

Monday marks 60 years since civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in front of his Mississippi home while his three children and wife, Myrlie Evers, were feet away.

His murder ignited a firestorm in Myrlie, who told "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King that for a while, hatred kept her going after his death. She later rebuilt her life and went on to achieve success, fueled by the need for vengeance. 

Now, at 90, she says, "I hope I never lose the will to fight for what I believe in."

Myrlie Evers carried the baton for racial equality to honor the legacy of her late husband, who was a powerful force in the civil rights movement. Medgar Evers served as the first NAACP field secretary for Mississippi and helped lead the fight to register Black voters. He also organized boycotts against white-only businesses. 

Myrlie recently sat down with King at the family's former Jackson, Mississippi, home, where she said memories of love override hatred. 

While Myrlie has used hatred as a tool to move ahead, she has also been fighting it for much of her life – perhaps in its strongest form in the early 1960s, when her family was under constant threat because of her husband's work in the civil rights movement.

"Knowing that every day might be the last day was the force behind the deep love that Medgar and I had for each other and our children," she said. "For Medgar, it was a deep love that he had for his people, his determination to see or make — help make changes — particularly in the state of Mississippi."

His love in that sense was so strong she said she sometimes questioned if he loved the movement more than his family.

"What about us?" she said she would say to her husband. "You have me, your wife who loves you dearly. You have these three children." 

"And Medgar would tell me, 'That's why I'm doing what I'm doing, because I want to make this a better place for you, my children, and all of the other people of color who live in Jackson, specifically, and across the state. It's gonna get better, Myrlie. I have to do something about it. I can't dismiss it.'" 

She said she remembers telling him, "Well, if you can't dismiss it, perhaps you can dismiss me." 

She thought she was prepared to leave the marriage, but in the end decided to stay.

"My decision was, 'scuse my grammar, 'Ain't gonna leave that man,'" she said, laughing. 

Deciding whether to leave or stay was tough, but Myrlie said she loved Medgar with all of her being.

Daughter of civil rights icons Medgar and Myrlie Evers pens personal letter to mother 09:03

The couple met while attending Alcorn A&M College in 1950. They got married in 1951, and three years later moved to Jackson, where Medgar became the state's first NAACP field secretary – a position that ultimately made him a target.

He was killed on June 12, 1963 by a single bullet. Their children were 9, 8 and 3 at the time.

"There was the love of my life and my children's father, shot," Myrlie said. "I recall vividly our children saying, crying, screaming, 'Daddy, get up, get up, Daddy, get up.' And of course there were my screams. And trying to help him and remembering that Medgar and I had talked about that scene so many times."

She said Medgar had trained the kids to fall to the floor if they ever heard a gunshot and grab their little brother.

"You also train them to know that that's the kind of society that they live in, the kind of state in which they live in," she said. "And most of all, that's why their dad was working so hard to correct things in the state of Mississippi." 

In spite of the tragedy, Myrlie seemed gracious, even forgiving at the time – but described that as a front.

"Beneath it, there was just determination to make 'em pay. And I said, 'Make 'em pay,'" she said. "I lived for two things: to take care of our children as best I could and to make whoever was responsible for my husband's death pay."

She said hatred is what kept her going – at first directed to everyone whose skin color was not the same as hers. 

"Might be ugly, but that's the way I felt," she said.

Ultimately, that "ugly period of hating" saved her, she said – "in the sense that I could retreat in my room or my bed someplace and plan destruction. That seemed to relieve me of suicide."

In the year that followed, she sat through two trials for the man who shot him. Both trials ended in hung juries. The jurors were all White men.

But in 1994, a third trial with new evidence and witness testimony looked – and ended – differently. Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of his murder, a verdict Myrlie said set her free. 

"Free at last," she said.

Amid the fight for justice for her husband, Myrlie took up his fight for equality, not only out of love for him but also to bring about change. She also began building a life with her children in California, where she went back to school and ran for Congress. 

She said that doing well and achieving was her vengeance.

Her achievements later included taking on leadership roles in corporate America, including as a director at the Arco oil company. She also became the first Black woman to be named commissioner of the board of the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. 

She got married again in 1976. Her second husband, Walter Williams, encouraged her in 1995 to run for chairperson of the NAACP.

"And almost everyone told me, 'You won't win. The men won't allow it,'" she said. "And I remember havin' a big smile on my face, and I said, 'That's all I need to know,' thinking: 'Watch me.'"

She won by a single vote, and Williams, who had been battling cancer, died days later.

Over the next few years, Myrlie restored the NAACP's status as the leading civil rights organization in the country, as well as financial standing. 

She said being Black and female never deterred her.

"It motivated me," she said. "Tell me that I can't do something, I'll kill myself trying to do that, you know? And that was the way I was brought up really, now that I think of it. Don't ever take no for an answer, sweetheart, my grandmother and my aunt would tell me. And I guess it's something that's carried over."

This past week, the Evers family was honored with special events in Jackson, including a celebration for Myrlie Evers and a gala marking 60 years since the world lost her husband.

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