This is America: The persistence of formidable women, from Myrlie Evers to Patty Murray

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the civil rights pioneer and wife of Medgar Evers who was assassinated in 1963.

The first time I interviewed civil rights icon Myrlie Evers a decade ago, she was about to deliver the invocation at President Barack Obama's second inauguration. She had just seen for the first time the high-powered rifle that a segregationist had used to murder her husband in 1963, and she couldn't get over the power it had to affect her still.

When I sat down with Evers again this month in Los Angeles, she was about to celebrate her 90th birthday, her hair was grayer and her gait less steady. But she had lost none of the fierceness that has marked her battle for justice and against racism in the 60 years since she heard that rifle fire and opened the door of their Mississippi home to find Medgar Evers lying on the front steps, shot in the back.

He had been a civil rights organizer, the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi, while she had been the supportive spouse, focused on rearing their three young children.

That moment propelled her to a life of activism. She would chair the national NAACP, run for Congress, and persist until Byron De La Beckwith was tried and convicted of Medgar's murder, nearly three decades later.

Happy Women's History Month! My name is Susan Page, and I'm the Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY. I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of "This Is America," a newsletter about social justice.

It is an apt moment to recognize formidable women, including the increasing number elected to office. Among those being recognized In USA TODAY's Women of the Year series are the women of Congress.

Many share traits with Myrlie Evers, including a willingness to challenge the status quo and a determination to persist against the odds.

Patty Murray was dismissed as "a mom in tennis shoes" when she first ran for the U.S. Senate from Washington state in 1992. In January, now in her sixth term, she became the first woman to be elected president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency.

She told me she and her female colleagues think about the next generation of leaders as they work. "In the back of all our minds is, we have to show young girls and women in this country that we can do this job." There are a record 25 women in the Senate and 125 in the House, far short of gender parity but the largest number in American history.

For her part, Myrlie Evers said she isn't yet ready to rest.

“Then I look at our system now, I look at America today, and still see so much prejudice and racism," she told me. "Who else has to give a life or lives to get us to realize that that is such a nasty disease in this United States of America?"

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Women's history month: Formidable women from Myrlie Evers to Congress