LORMAN, Miss. — It was fitting that the weeklong commemoration of Medgar Evers’ contributions to the Civil Rights movement should be capped off at a historically Black university that played a vital role in his life and his commitment to social justice.
Alcorn State University, a thriving land-grant institution in rural Mississippi, hosted the last leg of celebrations in the state honoring Evers 50 years after his assassination.
Evers was a graduate of Alcorn, and his widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, holds the position of distinguished scholar-in-residence. On Thursday, Alcorn brought together speakers, entertainers and dignitaries for the Medgar Wiley Evers Memorial dedication.
The highlight of the event was the unveiling of a larger-than-life bronze statue of Evers located in the heart of the sprawling campus, where Evers-Williams helped establish a social justice institute in his honor.
Television host and Mississippi native Tavis Smiley headlined the events, serving as keynote speaker at the dedication and master of ceremonies at the luncheon. Smiley described his close friendship to the Evers family — Evers’ son Van and daughter Sheila are members of his television talk show staff.
Smiley encouraged the sizeable audience of Alcorn students, faculty and community residents to emulate Evers’ life of service. Addressing the students, specifically, he said, “Medgar Evers was just an ordinary man; Myrlie Evers was just an ordinary woman. But they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. … When your moment comes, you can have the same courage, you can have the same conviction, you can have the same commitment, you can have the same character. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
Smiley also said leaders can come from all walks of life, advising students that they did not have to be wealthy or even have numerous degrees to become leaders. “Leadership is about loving and serving people … that is the responsibility that each and every one of us bears even 50 years later.”
Earlier in the program, Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a stirring remembrance of Evers as a fellow civil rights leader and said his legacy remains alive through the actions of others. “Medgar Evers still lives — he lives every time we vote, he lives every time we choose school over jail … he lives every time we choose love over hate and courage over fear.”
Evers, as head of the NAACP in Mississippi, was targeted because of his efforts to register Black voters throughout the state and to integrate eating establishments in the capital city of Jackson. Evers led the historic sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter in 1963 just two weeks before his assassination. His assassin, Byron De La Beckwith, wasn’t convicted until 1994, and later died in prison.
The statue, unveiled before Evers-Williams and several family members as the crowd looked on, was designed and sculpted by nationally acclaimed sculptor Ed Dwight. It will be a part of the Mississippi Civil Rights Trail. The Toyota Motors Corporation was the largest contributor to the project.
The Alcorn event concluded several days of commemoration for the slain leader, statewide and nationally, including a memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on June 5, featuring former President Bill Clinton.