"One hundred fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years after the March on Washington, we celebrate the spirit of our ancestors, which has allowed us to move from a nation of unborn hopes and a history of disenfranchised votes to today's expression of a more perfect union . . . Where our paths seem blanketed by throngs of oppression and riddled by pangs of despair, we ask for your guidance toward the light of deliverance, and that the visions of those that came before us and dreamed of this day, that we recognize that their visions still inspire us." – Myrlie Evers-Williams, 2013 Presidential Inaugural Invocation
When Myrlie Evers-Williams gave the invocation at President Obama's January inauguration, she was in part recognizing the vision and courage of her late great husband, Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, assassinated by a gun 50 years ago. Medgar was a huge inspiration for me. As a 22 year old, first year law student at Yale, I traveled to Mississippi during my first spring break in 1961 to reconnect with my friends from SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
After the sit-in movement and SNCC's founding at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker pulled those of us who had sat down at lunch counters together from across the South, I decided on the spur of the moment to apply to law school after volunteering for the Atlanta National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and seeing how many poor Black people could not get or afford legal counsel. Few, if any, White lawyers took civil rights cases at that time.
I had been thinking about going to graduate school to study 19th Century Russian Literature and entering the Foreign Service but was jolted by such great need and injustice all around me at home. So remembering my daddy's reminder that God ran a full employment economy and if you followed the need, you'd never lack for a worthwhile purpose in life, I applied to law school—with no understanding of what it entailed. Many of my SNCC friends had gone into the poorest and most dangerous states of the South to organize poor Black citizens to vote and demand a better life. I needed to reconnect with my courageous friends that spring to be reminded of why I was in law school studying corporations and property law. So off I went to Mississippi.
Medgar Evers, the local head of the NAACP, was the first welcoming face I saw when I arrived. He picked me up at the Jackson airport, took me home to meet and have dinner with Myrlie and their children, and then drove me up to the Mississippi Delta where the SNCC headquarters in Greenwood was located, about 90 miles away. Our first news upon arrival was about a shooting which had terrorized the Black community that day.
He would be relieved to know Black Mississippians no longer live in constant fear of the Ku Klux Klan and the kind of White supremacist terrorism that took his life. But he would be alarmed by the proliferation of gun violence that still keeps residents of many Black communities locked in their homes after dark in a new kind of American terror. And he would be dismayed by the resurgence of hate crimes such as the cruel hit-and-run death of James Craig Anderson, a Black man assaulted and then run over in 2011 by a group of young White men who made a habit of coming to Jackson to assault and harass Black people for sport. But he would be proud that they, unlike his own killer, were brought to justice swiftly by the county district attorney, the son of Black civil rights pioneers.
In some ways the battles of the Civil Rights Movement were easier to fight 50 years ago because they were easier to see. Today, the rigid lines that create two systems of opportunity for children in Mississippi and elsewhere are no longer written into law but remain present and the children know it. One group of children is still tracked towards limited opportunity, second class citizenship, and the invisible but powerful cradle to school to prison pipeline.
Despite having more elected officials and professionals now, there are fewer of the adult leaders on the ground who were once present in every community and totally focused on mentoring and preparing the next generation, teaching strong values, setting high standards, and making sure the future was better for Black children.
Many crucial socializing institutions—family, church, neighborhood, community—have frayed. There are strong leaders still in Mississippi and elsewhere who are struggling to fight for equal education and justice for all children but they must multiply dramatically in numbers, strength, effectiveness, and voice in the face of unjust school policies and practices, like zero tolerance school discipline, and unjust law enforcement tactics.
There is no excuse in 2013 for people of any color to fear joining the struggle for equality and justice and to be afraid to speak up for what's right and just and hold our political leaders accountable. Strong adult voices for children have to become a stronger and stronger force if the clock of racial and economic progress is not to continue to move backwards.
The fabric of family and community must be rewoven and the child must be placed at the center of all of our concerns. Medgar Evers remains a beacon for all of us who are still inspired by his example and vision. We must not let all he lived and died for recede on our watch.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.