A Civil Rights Figure's Long Road — To Carnegie Hall

Dec 15, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 12:43 pm

You know the old joke: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice." Myrlie Evers-Williams took a different route.

Her late husband, Medgar Evers, was the Mississippi head of the NAACP; he was assassinated for his work in 1963. Evers-Williams wound up moving to Southern California, where she became an educational, corporate and political leader and, in the 1990s, chairwoman of the NAACP.

But music has always been one of her loves, and she's about to fulfill a longtime dream: Myrlie Evers-Williams is playing Carnegie Hall, backed by the genre-spanning orchestra Pink Martini. They'll take the stage for the second of two shows this evening.

"Music and I have been partners for a very, very long time," Evers-Williams says. "My aunt and my grandmother, the two women who reared me, both played the piano, so they decided around age 4 that their child should take piano lessons. My aunt, I recall how she put aside the 25 cents every week for my music lessons. She wanted so badly for me to perform as an artist, a classical artist. Of course, during the time that I was growing up, at that time you found very few African-Americans — or Negroes, as we were called then — performing classical music anyplace. But she had set her sights very, very high for me, and she said, 'Carnegie Hall is it, baby. That's where you're gonna perform one day.' And, as a nice child, I said, 'Oh, yes, I'll be there.' "

Speaking with NPR's Scott Simon, Myrlie Evers-Williams discusses meeting her late husband in college, connecting with Pink Martini and dealing with nerves. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You know the old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice. Well, Myrlie Evers-Williams has taken an unexpected route. Her late husband, Medgar Evers, was the Mississippi head of the NAACP and was assassinated for his work in 1963. Myrlie Evers-Williams wound up moving to southern California, where she became an educational, corporate and political leader and, in the 1990s, the chairwoman of the NAACP. But music has always been one of her loves, and she's about to fulfill a longtime dream. Myrlie Evers-Williams is playing Carnegie Hall, with a little help from the band Pink Martini. Myrlie Evers-Williams joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: It is indeed my pleasure.

SIMON: Oh, our pleasure. Now, we're talking to you a day before you performance. Tell us about your...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Now, (unintelligible)...

EVERS-WILLIAMS: You call it a performance, all right.

SIMON: Well, that's what I've been told. Well, tell us about you and music if you could.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Oh. Music and I have been partners for a very, very long time. My aunt and my grandmother, the two women who reared me, both played the piano. So, they decided around age four that their child should take piano lessons. And my aunt started. And, you know, I recall how she put aside the 25 cents every week for my music lessons. But she wanted it so badly for me to perform as an artist, a classical artist. And, of course, during the time that I was growing up in a town, you found very few African-American - or Negroes, as we were called then - performing classical music at any place. But she had set her sights very, very high for me. And she said Carnegie Hall is it, baby. That's where you're going to perform one day. And as a nice child, I said oh, yes, I'll be there.

SIMON: Wow. So, well, you wound up, to my knowledge, not going into music.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: You know, that's very, very interesting. Because when I graduated, or just before graduating from high school, I applied to the state of Mississippi for a scholarship. I wanted to go to Fisk where I could obtain a major in music. I was denied. And I recall vividly that that letter said you have been denied an out-of-state scholarship. You can receive all of the music training that you need in the state of Mississippi at the two colleges that are set aside for your people. And I remember just being livid. You know, how dare they say that I could receive enough music for what I would want to do, which they assumed would be teaching. That was my first real awakening to discrimination. So, I went to Alcorn. And Medgar Evers and I met the first hour of the first day I was on Alcorn's campus.

SIMON: I had never heard that. My gosh.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Really? The first day, the first hour. I'll fast forward. He would always stop by the music studio and pretend that he loved the classical music.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: He loved the classical musician, it sounded like.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Well, he had his eye on her, OK. And we had a lot of - our courtship was his hanging out of the window, so to speak, on the way to football practice. I never had the hope though that I would ever set foot in Carnegie Hall, let alone play there. And I have to admit to you, I am frightened to death. Are these fingers going to move? You know, it's been a very, very long time. But I'm dedicating whatever it is that I do to my grandmother. Because she was, if I might call it, the wind beneath my wings. If I sit there and do no more than do re mi, it will be for her, and I'll be in Carnegie Hall. And I will have completed that promise that I made to her. So, it's very special to me. I'm nervous. But, you know, I will not be a magnificent pianist, but I will play something. I wanted so much to be a torch singer and envision myself singing torch songs in the curve of the baby grand. Now, I may get a chance to do that. I hope to have fun. We'll see. And I hope that others in attendance will enjoy it too, because it will reveal another side of Myrlie beyond being the widow of. And that's really what I want to do, and that's my gift to myself.

SIMON: May I ask how this came about?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Mr. Lauderdale with Pink Martini...

SIMON: Tom Lauderdale, the founder of Pink Martini.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man and artist. We had - or I believe he heard me make a speech someplace and I mentioned the fact that my grandmother had always wanted me to perform at Carnegie Hall. He followed up with some friends - mutual friends of ours - and they began to talk about it. And I think a year or so passed and we both appeared on an international TV show. Thomas said to that audience: Myrlie Evers is going to perform at Carnegie Hall with Pink Martini. He had said absolutely nothing to me about it at all. And he gave this nice smile that he has. The next morning, it was in the newspaper that I was going to perform at Carnegie Hall. And I'm really incensed by this time. And I said absolutely no. To fast forward, I did not say yes until about two and a half weeks ago. So, I'll pay a little tribute to my grandmother. I will play a few bars of Clair de Lune, which was favorite song. I may sing a little bit of a torch song. And recite a sexy poem.

SIMON: Can you give us a couple of lines?

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Watch out, it's a new me. A one that you never knew.

SIMON: Myrlie Evers-Williams in New York. The former chair of the NAACP plays Carnegie Hall with the band Pink Martini. Ms. Evers-Williams...

EVERS-WILLIAMS: Yes.

SIMON: ...you're going to be great.

EVERS-WILLIAMS: I'm going to hold you to that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.