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MLK Keynote Speaker: 'More Work to Do'

Civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams urges students to get involved

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers, called on young people during her keynote address commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Monday night (Jan. 27) to commit themselves to the idea that they can make a difference, too, and to work to continue King’s struggle for equality and justice.

“The evil is to sit by and do nothing,” she warned, pointing to the ongoing national challenges of poverty, education, income inequality and attempts to curtail voting rights and registration gains that have harshly impacted American minorities.

She also shared firsthand memories of the struggle and a mesmerizing tale about the battle for leadership during the infancy of the civil rights movement.

Braving subarctic temperatures, nearly 200 Northwestern faculty, staff, students, guests and others gathered at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the Evanston campus to hear the civil rights activist deliver her candid keynote address.

“I cannot help but think how far we have come in terms of working with each other, because it was decided by those at the head of the civil rights movement at the time that Dr. King  (before he came into his own) was too young, too aggressive, that all the cameras were focused on him -- and that all those who toiled in the field of civil rights said, ‘No way, this belongs to us, and we do not need a young upstart coming in and taking over.’”

Evers-Williams, 80, outlined hard, historical truths to put the success of the civil rights movement in context today and to stress the hard work that still lies ahead.

“I’m sharing this with you because the road has not always been easy,” she said. “There have been rocks hurled from the outside from those who did not want to see progress in this country and rocks hurled from within the circle to see who would be leader.”

Though King was perceived as an interloper by some early on and despite the dissention within the African-American community at the time, everyone did come together, she said, because the cause was great enough to bring people together.

Prior to Evers-Williams, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl addressed the audience. Noting that income inequality has become the "defining issue of our time" and that some African-Americans were leaving Evanston because they couldn’t afford it, Tisdahl said, "We need to acknowledge at this celebration that there is much more urgent work to be done."

Agreeing with the mayor and praising her for speaking the honest truth, Evers-Williams went on to deliver a message of hope with an exhortation, especially to the young people in the audience, to carry on the work that remains to be done in order to make King's dream a reality.

Evers-Williams also shared a poignant memory of meeting two other famous widows at King’s funeral in Atlanta, the newly widowed Coretta Scott King and Jacqueline Kennedy, who was seated a couple of rows in front of Evers-Williams and her daughter Reena. Ethel Kennedy, the wife of Robert Kennedy, was also there paying her respects -- not long before she would also be a widow.

At the end of the service, Jacqueline Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy, Evers-Williams and Reena all walked over to Mrs. King. “We all looked at each other, and there was a massive sigh,” Evers-Williams said. “And as we left that church and began to march toward Morehouse, Sen. Robert Kennedy said to his key staffer, ‘You stay with the Evers and be sure that they get through this crowd.’ This man says now that he has a backache all the time because he carried my daughter on his shoulders.“ 

Evers-Williams especially remembers Ethel Kennedy saying to the three widows “you women are so strong, you lost your husbands, and you still go forth.”

Little did Ethel Kennedy know that she was going to be next, Evers-Williams sighed. “But that’s life. We don’t know what will be next,” she said. “So how do we take advantage of the time that we have now? How do we move forward not only to build our own lives, but to help in our community and to help young people who are not sure who they are, where they should go and what they should do? Dr. King was a shining light for each and every one of us. I will always believe that he knew what would eventually happen to him.”

The Jan. 27 Evanston campus evening program concluded Northwestern’s weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Northwestern’s Dona Cordero, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion, extended a warm welcome to those who braved the frigid weather to attend the keynote program, and the evening was highlighted by moving songs, hymns and musical selections by the Jazz Small Ensemble, Alice Millar Chapel Choir and the Northwestern Community Ensemble.

Earlier, 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner Warren M. Washington delivered a keynote address at Alice Millar Chapel Jan. 20. Washington, an internationally recognized atmospheric scientist and climate researcher, talked about the civil rights movement and its effect on climate change, and the effect that Martin Luther King’s famous speech had on him.

“I watched Dr. Martin Luther King’s talk, ‘I Have a Dream,’ and it had a very powerful impact on me in terms of seeing someone articulate so well the need to improve civil rights,” Washington said.

The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity -- of which Washington and King were both members --organized the vigil and invited Washington to speak because of his historical role as the second African-American to receive a doctorate in atmospheric science as well as his terms as a science advisor to presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The weeklong celebration also included discussions, lectures, film screenings, music, theater and service programs to inspire reflection on King’s life and legacy. 


The keynote evening program Jan. 27 was very dramatic and moving, from the hymns and the inspirational music to the remarks by Cordero, Tisdahl, Evers-Williams and other speakers. Cordero was chair of Northwestern’s 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration’s MLK Day Planning Committee.

"Martin Luther King's dream is Evanston's dream," Tisdahl said in brief remarks before the keynote address, emphasizing the city's longtime commitment to diversity. "And how are we doing? Not too well.

"We try hard, and we never stop working on educational opportunity, on work opportunity," she added. "But we're losing members of our African-American community. Some people can't afford to live here."

She underscored her commitment to the “urgent work” that still needs to be done to honor and complete King’s legacy.

When Evers-Williams took the podium minutes later, the first thing she said was a special thank you to the mayor for speaking the hard truth, unlike many politicians of our time. "I would like to thank the mayor for her very pointed and frank remarks," she said.

Then Evers-Williams went on to deliver a message of hope laced with some hard truths of her own -- but mainly a message for young people to look for the places where they can make their contributions and “find other like minds” to share the work with them.

Audience members joined in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” led by Stephen Alltop, Alice Millar Chapel’s director of music. Evers-Williams was introduced to the audience by Ani Ajith, president of Associated Student Government (ASG) at Northwestern.

Following her keynote address, Evers-Williams sat down in the center of the stage for a Q-and-A interview by Nothwestern student Ashleigh Nelson, a junior at the Medill School of Journalisim, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

The program concluded with “We Shall Overcome,” performed by the Northwestern Community Ensemble, directed by Courtney Bernat, that was followed by a benediction by University Chaplain Rev. Timothy Stevens and a postlude of the South African freedom song “Siyahamba” (“We are marching in the light of God”) performed by the Alice Millar Chapel Choir and Northwestern Community Ensemble. The singers ended the evening by marching down the side aisles of Pick-Staiger toward the lobby.

Myrlie Evers-Williams

Following the 1963 murder of her husband, Evers-Williams has emerged as a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement. For more than three decades, she has fought to carry on her late husband’s legacy, never relenting in her determination to change the face of race relations in America. She has become a symbol of courage and perseverance, steadfast in her march towards social justice by exposing new generations of students to the cause for which her husband died.

Evers-Williams was the first female chairperson to lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her leadership rejuvenated the agency, helping ensure its relevance for generations to come. She also was instrumental in launching “Youth for Unity,” a diversity education program designed to fight injustice and intolerance.

In 1967, she co-wrote a book with William Peters about her husband, “For Us, the Living.” In 1999, she published her memoir “Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be,” which charts her journey from being the wife of an activist to becoming a community leader in her own right. In 2005, she served as editor of “The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches,” a book intended to preserve the memory of her first husband. For more information on Evers-Williams, visit as well as

Warren M. Washington

Washington is a senior scientist and chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Cooperative Agreement at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the Climate Change Research Section. He has published close to 200 papers in professional journals, garnered dozens of national and international awards and served as a science advisor to former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

A specialist in computer modeling of Earth’s climate, Washington became one of the first developers of groundbreaking atmospheric computer models in collaboration with Akira Kasahara when he came to NCAR in the early 1960s. These models, which use fundamental laws of physics to predict future states of the atmosphere, have helped scientists understand climate change. As his research developed, Washington worked to incorporate the oceans and sea ice into climate models. Such models now include components that depict surface hydrology and vegetation as well as the atmosphere, oceans and sea ice.

An introduction to “Three-Dimensional Climate Modeling,” written by Washington and Claire Parkinson in 1986 and updated in 2005, is a standard reference in the field.

Washington’s past research involved using the Parallel Climate Model (PCM). His current research involves using the Community Earth System Model (CESM) to study the impacts of climate change in the 21st century. Both models were used extensively in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, for which NCAR scientists, including Washington and colleagues around the world, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Myrlie Evers-Williams delivers the keynote address