On Thursday, Myrlie Evers-Williams signed the papers and handed over the keys, selling her longtime Bend residence. But make no mistake: Bend will always be her home.
Evers-Williams, 79, the civil rights leader who recently delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, has quietly lived on the northern edge of Bend for nearly 25 years. It pains her to leave.
“Quite honestly, I have an ongoing love affair with Bend,” she said Friday.
Evers-Williams was raised by her grandmother in Mississippi. She met husband Medgar Evers as a student at Alcorn A&M College, and the couple married in 1951. Evers, who worked as the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down in the family’s driveway in 1963 by a white supremacist. Evers-Williams fought for three decades to bring her husband’s murderer to justice. The man went to trial three times and was finally convicted in 1994.
After witnessing her husband’s murder, she said she developed a sort of split personality. In public, she was the strong widow. In private, she said, she was overwhelmed by anger and hate. Evers-Williams had to learn to use that energy and turn it into something better.
She said she remembered the advice of her grandmother and her late husband.
“There should be no room in your heart for hatred,” she said. “Eventually I reached a point where I wanted nothing to do with hatred.”
Evers-Williams married again in 1976, to Walter Williams, a labor and civil rights activist. He died in 1995.
Over the years, Evers-Williams became a well-known voice for civil rights. Her list of life accomplishments stretches long, and includes serving as the chairwoman of the NAACP from 1995 to 1998, creating the Medgar Evers Institute in Jackson, Miss., running for Congress and writing two books.
That list now also includes delivering the invocation at the start of a presidential inauguration.
Evers-Williams had fewer than two weeks to prepare her speech.
“I went into my special corner in my special chair, and I sent up a prayer of thanks for having been asked,” she said. “And then I asked the Almighty for help and guidance.”
With three minutes to fill, she searched for how to say it all. But she couldn’t shake her grandmother’s words: “Make me a blessing.”
What Evers-Williams wanted the public to hear in her invocation was the idea of unity.
“Our country is at a crossroads,” she said. “We seem to be so divided in our thoughts and actions.”
Standing before the estimated 800,000 people gathered for the inauguration, she referenced the Emancipation Proclamation and the march on Washington. She even found a way to honor Evers without saying his name: She spoke of those interred in Arlington National Cemetery, where he is buried.
Evers-Williams said she was honored and thankful to be included in the event; she’s the first woman and first non-clergyman to deliver the inaugural invocation.
“It was no show of oratorical skill. I just wanted to let the words speak themselves,” she said. “I want to help heal this nation.”
Evers-Williams spends a great deal of time traveling around the country. But she said Bend has been where she comes to get away from it all.
While visiting friends last week, she was astonished to read the population sign on the highway. When she and her second husband first moved to Bend in 1989, the population hovered around 20,000, and Bend was still a lumber town struggling through hard times.
Back then, the couple was on their way to Portland and stopped to visit friends in the area. On a tour of the neighborhood, they spotted a house in a cul-de-sac with a “for sale” sign out front.
They walked in, climbed the six stairs to the main level, saw the mountain view and didn’t have to say a word.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
Evers-Williams loved the home so much, she said, sometimes she talked to it. “I’d walk through the door and it was like the house embraced me,” she said. “It was magnificent.”
Evers-Williams said she and her husband didn’t realize how few minorities lived in Central Oregon. One day at the grocery store, she said, people stared at them. As Evers-Williams moved to the produce section to grab a head of lettuce, someone approached her.
“We’re glad you’re here,” she said the person whispered.
But for as welcome as she felt here, Evers-Williams said that after experiencing violence and racism in Mississippi, she always maintained an edge.
“You are acute to the different sounds and smells and movements,” she said. “It’s a survival technique honed over the years.”
It served her well when, she said, someone planted an explosive device in her mailbox here.
“When you have lived the kind of life we’ve both lived, it wasn’t surprising,” she said of herself and her husband. “But it was sad.”
When Williams died in 1995, Evers-Williams received a note in the mail. “Two down,” it read. “One to go.”
“Those kinds of incidents I believe are extremely rare,” she said. “But the fact is they did happen.”
But nearly all the time, she said, people in Bend were kind.
“They embraced us without going overboard,” she said. “Color and race was not an issue we encountered.”
Williams, who grew up in Los Angeles, loved to fish. “He said it was a joy to have space around him,” Evers-Williams said. “Space is freedom.”
There were other joys to living in Central Oregon, including being able to drink the water straight from the faucet.
“Bend was a wonderful place to come and rest,” she said.
As she spoke of no longer having a home in the area, tears sprang to Evers-Williams’ eyes.
“I said to the house, ‘I love you, and I hope the next people who own you love you too,’” she said. “It holds such good, good memories.”
And while she no longer owns property here, Evers-Williams said she’ll still visit her friends and spend time here when she can.
Her children and grandchildren live in California and Mississippi. And now that’s where she’ll live too, dividing time between Claremont, Calif., and Alcorn State University, in Mississippi, where she is a distinguished scholar-in-residence.
In that way, Evers-Williams is returning again to her roots. It was on that campus that she met Evers.
“I pass by the spot all the time,” she said, laughing. “It’s where it all started.”
She won’t be surprised if another family member someday decides to buy property here in Central Oregon. And while Evers-Williams is calling somewhere new her home, she said Bend will always be her special place.
“I love it. I always will.”