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Sonia Sanchez, Myrlie Evers-Williams honored in 'Freedom's Sisters' exhibit

DEMETRIA IRWIN Special to the AmNews | 2/8/2012, 6:43 p.m.

The multimedia, interactive Smithsonian exhibit known as "Freedom's Sisters" has made its way to New York after four years of traveling around the country. Housed in the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Washington Heights, the exhibit officially opened Feb. 4 and will be available for viewing through April 22.

The 20 women honored in the exhibit run the gamut from 19th-century trailblazers like Harriet Tubman to modern-day activists like Kathleen Cleaver. The common thread is that all of the women have made substantial contributions toward making the United States a fair place to live for all people.

Two of the living honorees, educator-activist Sonia Sanchez and civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, were participants in a panel discussion that also included Essence editor-in-chief Constance White and was moderated by author and television producer Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of noted director Spike Lee.

Legendary actress Ruby Dee was also slated to participate on the panel but had to cancel because she did not feel well. The Feb. 3 invitation-only event was attended by young and old alike and by City Council Members Inez Dickens, Ydanis Rodriguez and Robert Jackson. Malcolm X's daughter Malaak was also in attendance.

The women shared their experiences and offered general observations about the world and the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement. Lee asked Evers-Williams, the widow of slain activist Medger Evers, how she managed being married to a man with such an intense passion for what was, at the time, a very dangerous pursuit for equality. Evers-Williams explained that she wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do at first because of safety concerns, but she grew to understand and became an integral part of the movement.

"We came up with new ways to get people involved and caring about the struggle. We started the 'Don't buy gas where you can't use the restroom' campaign to combat segregated restroom facilities," she said.

Sanchez shared numerous enlightening and often humorous stories from her long and continuing years in activism, but she also had some words of advice for the young people of today. "Instead of using your Twitter account to talk about what somebody did or did not have on, tweet about peace. Tweet about this event. Tell everyone they need to come here and visit this exhibit," she said.

As a poet and advocate for the arts, Sanchez noted that in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, there was nowhere that gender equality was on greater display than in the Black arts. Men and women shared the stage and headlines equally.

Evers-Williams revealed a bit of her morning ritual and encouraged others to do the same. "Every morning, I go into the bathroom, look in the mirror and whatever that sight is," said Evers-Williams to laughter in the audience, "I say, 'Hello, beautiful.'"

The last bit of advice from Sanchez? "Stop gossiping." She said if someone has harsh words for you, instead of stooping to that person's level, make that person rise to yours, though she acknowledged that "it ain't easy."

The "Freedom's Sisters" exhibit sets a high bar of personal and professional excellence by showcasing the lives of these 20 accomplished women. It is on display now at the Shabazz Center, 3940 Broadway, and admission is free. Visit www.theshabazzcenter.net or call (212) 568-1341 for more information.