Saturday, October 10, 2009
Nearly two decades ago, when Ray Mabus was Mississippi's governor, he promised Myrlie Evers-Williams that someday he would find a way to honor her late husband, slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. On Friday, Mabus, now secretary of the U.S. Navy, surprised Myrlie Evers-Williams by keeping that promise and naming a Navy supply ship after him. "The memory of Medgar Evers and what he did will be carried around the world," Mabus said. The USNS Medgar Evers is the first ship Mabus has had the opportunity to name since being sworn into the secretary post in June. "I wanted it to be very special," he said Friday at Jackson State University. The 700-foot Lewis and Clark-class ship will be used to deliver supplies like food, ammunition, fuel and parts for the Navy's fleet. It also could be used in humanitarian missions, Mabus said. "We have worked so long and so hard to see that he is remembered," Myrlie Evers-Williams said. "I cannot thank (Mabus) enough for honoring Medgar in this manner." Medgar Evers organized nonviolent protests, voter registration drives and boycotts in Mississippi during the civil rights movement. He became the field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before being assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson home in 1963 at the age of 37. His killer, Byron De La Beckwith, was convicted in 1994.
Medgar EversMyrlie Evers-Williams said she hopes the ship serves as a vessel to spread her late husband's story across the globe and that the servicemen who work on it will be inspired to learn about his life. The honor came as a surprise to her. "It's perhaps the best secret that has been kept from me," she said. The ship will be built at General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego. Mabus said construction will begin soon and will take about two years. Mabus said ships in the Lewis and Clark class typically have been named in honor of "visionaries, explorers and pioneers." Others have been named after Amelia Earhart, Sacagawea and astronaut Alan Shepard. Only one other ship in the class - the USNS Carl Brashear - has been named in honor of an African American. Brashear was the first African American to become a U.S. Navy Master Diver. "Medgar Evers was a visionary, pioneer and American hero," Mabus said. "The struggle for equal rights is not over, but look how far we've come." Medgar Evers served in the Army during World War II before becoming active in civil rights work. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think there would be a day such as today," Evers-Williams said. "I will be eternally grateful." Evers' brother, Charles Evers, said he thought it took courage on Mabus' part to pick his brother as the first person he would honor. "Being a Mississippian, you had to have the nerve to do it," he said. "Thank you so very much."