OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams told graduates at the University of Mississippi on Saturday they have the power "to do what is right, to do what is just" and make the world a better place.
"I believe in you, and I hope you believe in yourselves, too," Evers-Williams said during a commencement ceremony on the university's main campus in Oxford. "Soar! Not only for yourselves, nor just for the betterment of Mississippi, but for betterment of all mankind. Soar, and be free."
Evers-Williams, a Vicksburg native, told graduates to work not only for themselves but also for the betterment of Mississippi and all mankind.
She was presented with the University of Mississippi Humanitarian Award. This was only the third time the award has been given. It went to philanthropists Jim and Sally Barksdale in 2001 and to former Gov. William Winter and his wife, Elise, in 2003.
Evers-Williams' first husband, Medgar Evers, was denied admission to the University of Mississippi law school in 1954, when the state's education system was still segregated. He worked as field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP and was assassinated outside the family's Jackson home in June 1963.
The Clarion-Ledger reported (http://on.thec-l.com/17TNK7i) that University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones told Evers-Williams that her husband's denial of admission to the law school "was an expression of institutionalized injustice in this university, this state and this nation."
"As we recognize the two of you today we offer our regret and apology for that injustice to you, your family and to countless others," Jones said. "We are grateful for your sacrifice and for your remarkable lives."
Evers-Williams was national chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1995 to 1998. In January, she delivered the invocation for President Barack Obama's inauguration his second term.
According to a university news release, she reflected on the history between the Evers family and Ole Miss, acknowledged that progress has been made in human equality and envisioned further evolution in society's attitudes.
"You all have the power — power to do what is right, to do what is just," Evers-Williams said. "I hope that you realize and take seriously the roles you will play in your communities, the state, nation and the world..... I prefer to believe in the good of all humankind, that there are more people of good will than those who do not feel that way."
During a news conference after the graduation ceremony, Evers-Williams said she was emotional about receiving the Humanitarian Award.
"I deeply appreciate it," she said. "It speaks to all the emotional feelings I've gone through about the University of Mississippi."