The chairwoman of the NAACP told a crowd of more than 400 at Chapman University on Tuesday night that the work of the civil rights movement is not finished, especially in California.
"America is at the crossroads," Myrlie Evers-Williams, 63, said. "America is not exactly sure what it is and what it should be doing. . . . We have become a little battle fatigued and stepped on the sidelines and said, 'OK, everything is OK.' Wrong."
Evers-Williams particularly attacked efforts to roll back affirmative action programs.
"We are seeing affirmative action being dismantled in California, the land of milk and honey. And California is spearheading this move."
The lecture was organized by Chapman University junior Kathaleen Collins, 28, in an effort to help bring cohesion to Orange County's African American community.
"Unlike many cultures in Orange County, African Americans do not have a central location," Collins said. "We are very spread out. With a concentration, you have very better chance to mobilize around causes, [establish] a sense of community and get a social fabric."
Evers-Williams was the first speaker in the university's Distinguished Lecture Series, which will feature about two lectures a year.
Collins, who heads the university's Multi-Cultural Committee, first approached Chapman's provost about the possibility of inviting Evers-Williams. With his approval, she contacted the NAACP in Washington, and eventually the arrangements were made, at a cost to the university of about $15,000 to $20,000, officials said Tuesday.
Evers-Williams, who was elected chairwoman of the 87-year-old civil rights organization in February 1995, said she has been busy fund-raising, organizing and trying to resuscitate the NAACP's image after financial mismanagement and the firing of former director Benjamin Chavis Jr. in 1994.
Evers-Williams is the widow of Medgar Evers, who opened the NAACP's first field office in Jackson, Miss., in 1954. He was killed in 1962 by a sniper, and 31 years later, white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith of Mississippi was sentenced to life in prison for the killing.
Gregory Brown, assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology at Chapman, said, Evers-Williams' talk Tuesday was a boost for the African American community here.
"It's important that people know we have national leaders that recognize there is an African American community in Orange County. Their presence sends a strong message that we are a small community, but we are strong."
Referring to the size of the crowd, Evers-Williams said it should remind the audience that "there's always someone there. We are not alone. Truly what I have witnessed here tonight says that."
And she reminded the students of a debt.
"You don't have to worry about whether you have to sit at the back of the bus. You drive the bus, or you own the bus. You don't have to worry if you can go to the swimming pool. We did. You don't have to worry about being called 'boy.' All of these things that seem so small and insignificant are things that people worked and died for in the past."