The National Civil Rights Museum recently honored Myrlie Evers Williams and Julius Erving with its annual Freedom Awards.
Evers-Williams, the former chair of the NAACP and the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and Erving, an NBA Hall of Famer known as “Dr. J” during his playing days in the old American Basketball Association, spoke at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ at the awards ceremony’s annual public forum.
Here are some of the honorees’ comments:
Erving recalled his youth in Hempstead and Roosevelt on Long Island, going from playing basketball in the public housing project where he lived and the nearby parks to playing at the Hempstead Salvation Army gym and becoming a member of the group 48 years ago. He joined around the time his father died.
“This corps taught me things between the ages of 8 and 12 that have stuck with me today and are part of the reason why my core value system is centered around humanitarian effort and philanthropic endeavor. …
"Someone reached out to take – they called me Junior Erving then – Junior Erving off the corner and extended their hand to me. I accepted it.
“With the acceptance of that came a tremendous, tremendous responsibility to complete the cycle. When someone gives something to you … you don’t just take it and run with it. You take it and you digest it. You take it as a gift.”
Erving’s younger brother died in 1969 from lupus, which Erving still describes as “my mortal enemy.”
“He probably had been sick longer than three months. But we didn’t know what it was. He was always the young one in the family who didn’t get the height.
"He was the bed wetter. He was the one who got asthma. He was in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals throughout a long part of his young life. … I was 19 and he was 16 and I was asked to leave school and come home to bury my brother.
“To me, that became the turning point because now both of the other male figures in my immediate family were gone. … I cried for a year over this loss. I mourned. I felt the pain. I felt a distrust of medicine. I lost faith. I challenged God, ‘Why are you taking my brother?’
For a full year, I was in a different zone. Once I came out of it, I pledged to never go back to it. You need faith and you need trust. And I recognized – I did it with plenty of help – that now it was my responsibility to take the legacy associated with my brother’s life – his short life – and also take my father’s name and as I go out to do battle, as I go out to do research, as I go out to work or play, I’m going with the spirit of three people instead of one.
"My dad and my brother are always with me.”
Myrlie Evers Williams talked of her husband, Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the front yard of their home in Jackson, Miss., in 1963.
Myrlie Evers Williams
Medgar Evers was field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi at a time when black citizens could be killed for minor infractions. He died as his wife and children watched his last moments.
“I have always worked so very hard to see that Medgar Evers was known, was appreciated, with no idea of having any kind of tribute paid to me. I am so moved by this and so thankful for it. I am so moved by the presence of all of you of the younger generation. …
“It says to me that those of my generation don’t have to worry anymore because you are so capable of taking this world that we have and moving us all forward in the manner in which we should be.
“Long before Jesse Jackson said, ‘I am somebody,’ I had teachers in my school who made a way for us because we didn’t have the books. We didn’t have the chemicals – the test tubes. We had none of that to really work with. But they told us, ‘Above all things, remember that you are strong – that you are intelligent – that you have these challenges before you. But take those challenges as something positive to inspire you to do better. …
“That was instilled in my generation. We were told to work hard – to work even harder because we had to be better than anyone else in our accomplishments. And that was the driving force behind our success.
“Fortunately, today it’s much different for you. I say grasp everything that’s there for you to learn, to accomplish. Don’t waste your time with lots of frivolity – even though that’s fun and we all have to have it. Don’t waste your time in being negative about anything. Take it as a challenge. Rise above it.”