Myrlie Evers-Williams, civil rights activist and widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said Monday that Americans are being challenged as never before but the younger generation now demanding justice and equality is cause for hope.
She compared today's youth who are marching and protesting racial disparities and police shootings on social media with the civil rights activists who demanded change and even lost their lives in the 1950s and 1960s — including her late husband, assassinated 54 years ago by a segregationist.
"You are keeping the spirit of the true America alive," said Evers-Williams, 83.
She spoke at the 27th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center to about 2,000 Minnesotans, a crowd that she praised as a collection of freedom lovers and freedom workers.
One of the largest MLK events in the country, the breakfast had a guest list that was in part a who's who of Minnesota politics: Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer and Betty McCollum, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
The annual breakfast was organized in partnership with the General Mills Foundation and the United Negro College Fund. The event raised $130,000 for the scholarship fund.
Evers-Williams said that the "grind of prejudice and racism" still exists and that young people "are crying out today" as in decades past. Now it's up to the older generation, she said, to show the way for the new wave of activists.
Evers-Williams described the day in June 1963 when her husband Medgar, Mississippi's first field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was shot to death on the family's doorstep. Their young daughter Reena ran to her dying father and said, "Get up, Daddy, get up," Evers-Williams told the crowd.
The night before his death, she said, Medgar Evers asked her to take care of their children. Evers-Williams said she understood that to mean not just the couple's three children, but the youth of America. She urged the crowd to vote, speak out and embrace America's youth as a testament to her husband's and Dr. King's sacrifices.
And she had some gentle advice for the younger generation pushing boundaries in the fight for freedom: "What you have is worth fighting for. Don't destroy what you have. Build on it."
Evers-Williams never mentioned President-elect Donald Trump by name during her speech. But afterward she said she "just became ill" when a reporter asked her about Friday's inauguration and Trump's critical comments about civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis.
"I am not going to get into a public debate on the president-elect and the state of America except to say I am very concerned," she said. "As long as I can continue to work to improve relationships across the color line and other barriers, I will continue to do so."
Kristina Hamilton, of Minneapolis, was in the audience listening to Evers-Williams.
"Her call to action is so inspiring," said Hamilton, who is in sales at General Mills. She and others can't rest easy, she said, but must continue to push for change.
Evers-Williams, a former national chairwoman of the NAACP, said the misguided belief that the battle for equality is complete is the biggest challenge for the movement today.
"The most pressing civil rights issue today is helping the public to understand we still need civil rights. We must embrace it and we must protect it. Otherwise that, too, will disappear from our control. Then what will we have left?" she said.