Myrlie Evers-Williams PO ’68 celebrates 90th birthday at Pomona

Civil rights activist and Pomona alum Myrlie Evers-Wiliams turned 90 on March 17. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

On March 22, Pomona College held a 90th birthday tribute to celebrate civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams PO ’68. Family, friends, alumni and staff were invited, along with Evers-Williams, to view the archival collection that she recently donated to the college and to hear from a variety of important figures in Evers-Williams’ life. 

The birthday reception was an opportunity for invited guests and Claremont Colleges students to talk about and view various parts of the archival collection, which includes thousands of artifacts that showcase Evers-Williams’ and the nation’s long road toward justice.

At the event,  the collection was displayed chronologically, with several stations showcasing the highlights of Evers-Williams’ life: working for the civil rights movement, serving as NAACP chairwoman, performing at Carnegie Hall, speaking for TEDx and lecturing at various renowned organizations.

Evers-Williams’ birthday celebration hosted visitors from across the country. Among the many guests was California State University San Bernardino president Tomas Morales, who worked at Medgar Evers College, named after Evers-Williams’ late husband. 

“We’re honoring a very distinguished member of our society, of our country,” Morales said. “It’s a wonderful way for the community to celebrate this great woman.”

Peter Sasaki PO ’91, who serves on the board of trustees at Pomona, flew from New York to see the tribute. 

“There is no way I was going to miss something like this, that is really special for the country, but also really special for Pomona,” Sasaki said. 

Many of the attendees said they were impressed with the history of Evers-Williams’ life provided by the archives.

“What stood out to me is this multi-talented woman leader,  an author, an artist, [a performer], a civil rights activist, assuming the chair of the NAACP, and a family that came back from a tragic murder of their father, her husband,” Morales said. “I was incredibly impressed with the archives that have been bestowed to Pomona College.” 

English professor Prageeta Sharma took particular interest in one part of the collection: the red dress Evers-Williams wore during a performance at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 6, 2012. Before Evers-Williams became a prominent civil rights activist, she studied classical piano at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. 

In her closing remark of the video tribute, Evers-Williams recalled her experience performing. 

“It was the dream of my grandmother and then it became my dream,” she said. “I have been blessed.”

At 6 p.m., guests were ushered into Bridges Auditorium, where a short biographical video about Evers-Williams’ life was played. Evers-Williams shared the importance of her experiences and how they made her into who she is today. 

“The pain and the scars that come from being my color and living in a segregated society is painful, it’s something you don’t forget,” Evers-Williams said in the video. “It’s something that you gain strength from, not only to survive, but it’s something that is instilled in you where you want to help people regardless of the color of their skin, to understand each other, to realize we are all human beings.” 

President Gabi Starr’s opening remarks commended Evers-Williams’ resilience and wisdom.

“This is a woman who accepts challenges and lives a life of purpose,” Starr said. “Not hanging onto her identity as a widow, she became a leader in her own right. As she once put it, she became ‘just Myrlie.’” 

Starr added that she hopes Evers-Williams can feel the love of her community. 

“It’s the love she found with Medgar, it’s the love she found again with Walter Marese, who she married on Pomona’s campus in 1996, it’s the love she shares with her family and the community, it’s the love that sustained her as grief gave way to healing and hope,” Starr said. “Thank you for the gifts you have given us all, not just the extraordinary collection that you have gifted this college, but the gifts of watching your grace and your courage, your beauty, and your love.”

The tributes followed a musical performance from Pomona music professors Melissa Green and Genevieve Lee and a collection of speeches about Evers-Williams’ impact.

One impactful tribute came from Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, the 44th President and former first lady, respectively. Evers-Williams performed former President Obama’s invocation at his second presidential inauguration. She became the first woman and the first non-clergy member to perform the prayer. 

“Over the course of 90 years, you have changed our country for the better,” President Obama said to Evers-Williams in the video. “Often in the face of enormous obstacles, your tireless work fighting for civil rights is an inspiration to us all. And we know that the rich history of your archrival records will aid future generations in their pursuit for a more equitable, just America.” 

Pomona Black Student Union co-president Precious Omomofe PO ’24 presented Evers-Williams with flowers as she gave her closing remarks.

“I found Pomona College to be more [of] a home than perhaps home even was,” Evers-Williams said. “Pomona College filled so many empty spaces in me [and] in the lives of my children. They gave me a smile and told me ‘you can do it!’ I will never forget Pomona College.”

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