Mississippi Beautiful: The Unveiling of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Who are we?
How do we claim this?
Who are we?
We’re faces of joy and pain
For we know that we’re more than just a name
Mississippi, who are we?
I know we’re beautiful, we’re beautiful,
The more that we believe,
We’re beautiful, we’re beautiful
The more that we can see
We’re beautiful, we’re beautiful
The moment we believe.
-“Mississippi Beautiful,” composed by Pam Confers and featured in the museum.

Mississippi is 200 years old. On December 10, 1817 Mississippi joined the Union as the 20th state.

I am a historian of the civil rights movement and on December 7, 2017 I shared a panel platform with the moderator, veteran journalist Randall Pinkston, civil rights veteran and author Charles Cobb, and fellow scholars Emilye Crosby and Tiyi Morris at the House chamber of the Old Capitol building of the Magnolia State. Our task: to discuss how Mississippi Changed America.

In celebrations preceding the opening of the two museums (the Mississippi History Museum and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum) in Jackson we discussed how the mass movement for civil rights had profound effects on the nation.

Many facts came into play. The actions of brave Mississippians changed national politics as a result of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the regular delegation’s legitimacy at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. MFDP’s push, albeit unsuccessful in 1964, ended the practice of discrimination in party primaries that would ensure all-white delegations. Also, the cumulative effect of having nearly a thousand volunteers from around the country live and work in the state during the 1964 Summer Project — known as Freedom Summer — to register people into MFDP and assist local movement activity, shifted the tenor of young people’s relationship with their country. Their sacrifices spread activism nationwide and sparked other movements in the decade. Just two examples shared in the lively and generative discussion.

The looming unwelcomed appearance of Donald Trump to the long-scheduled and planned Saturday opening cast a toxic shadow over Jackson. Movement veterans joked about how the six inches of snow that fell on the city overnight on Thursday heralded the end times. So we took advantage of the Friday evening gala and the opportunity to tour the museum before the ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

I had a lot of misgivings over the civil rights museum.

Former governor Haley Barbour, an unapologetic racist, signed the museum into existence on his way out of the Governor’s mansion in 2012. Atonement or appeasement?

As the site went from a massive hole in the rich red earth to a beautifully designed structure overlooking the state fairgrounds, battles ensued over this history’s representation and who would control the narratives.

Researchers contacted me to turn over my research on Clarksdale’s vibrant movement history, including my contacts who had trusted me with their stories, without revealing how they would use this work. I had a responsibility to be true and loyal to those who had trusted me with their words.

I provided most of the photographs that ended up documenting Clarkdale’s movement in the museum and most, if not all, of the information came from my book, Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II. I heard veterans’ complaints that curators had not sought out their expertise and their fears of yet another misrepresentation. I wondered about which voices and organizations would dominate over others based on who still lived and who had influence.

Skepticism yielded to satisfaction. The densely packed large room with eight chambers leading to a central light sculpture and contemplative space, left not an inch uncovered. Long columns list the lynchings of African Americans since emancipation, scores of mugshots of 1961 Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson line upper walls, and the entire space is blanketed with images of the many brave local men and women who drove the movement. Most of the artifacts are documents: affidavits, letters, pamphlets, posters and the like, creating a necessarily text-heavy presentation. The museum requires multiple visits to absorb everything.

I toured the space with Charlie Cobb and greeted many veterans throughout. They too marveled at the accomplishment and took photographs next to images of their younger activist selves, appreciating what was there and noting what and who remained missing.

In several spots, crossing a line on the flooring triggered overhead flashbulbs and the sound of a cocked rifle — designed to mimic the surveillance and provoke the fear that haunted black people daily. One fascinating observation occurred after standing aside for a few minutes to watch several guests trigger the sensors. Most black visitors flinched instinctively, recognizing the sound immediately, while most white visitors looked around confused and perplexed. This moment plainly illustrated how black and white Americans understand and inhabit the same world in which they live differently.

The author with civil rights activist Joyce Ladner.

The unexpected snow delayed my early Saturday departure by a full day so I had the opportunity to attend the opening ceremonies. Eschewing the chance of witnessing and validating Trump’s presence, I and a few of my fellow panelists had a leisurely breakfast mere blocks away. We arrived in time to see Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams — the 1963 widow of slain NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers — deliver a simple, eloquent, and powerful speech on the outdoor public stage that named no names but pulled no punches.

Crowds did not reach capacity — energy sapped by the cold temperatures and further dampened by Trump’s hastily modified and brief remarks that he made indoors before a handpicked audience.

Outside, some Trump protesters stood silently on the sidelines baring their black lives matter t-shirts with confederate flag stickers taped across their mouths. Right next to them a black man bedecked in Trump campaign paraphernalia strolled around for full effect and posed for photographs from supporters and foe alike. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), and Derrick Johnson — former Mississippi NAACP President and now CEO of the national NAACP — were just three of many who had every desire to attend but protested Trump’s desire for a photo-op. Johnson, like me, visited the night before, and he with others honored civil rights veterans at a separate event in Jackson that morning.

From left to right: Randall Pinkston (retired CBS reporter), Charlie Cobb (civil rights veteran), the author, and Derrick Johnson (National NAACP President)

The unnecessary drama surrounding the opening will not diminish the fact that the museum does what no Mississippi History class ever did in the state. It shows the breadth of black life and resistance and provides a history kept away from Mississippians in their classrooms and textbooks.

With commitment from the Kellogg foundation and others to ensure all ninth graders in the state visit the museum, I am hopeful that slowly but surely the past will heal the present. And as the politics of the day fades and life continues, what remains is this place and the stories within that will outlive us all.

Mississippi, beautiful. Happy Birthday!

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