It is debatable whether the unexpected snow hitting the South, including Jackson, Miss., affected attendance at the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History more than Donald Trump’s appearance Saturday.
Civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) were not the only ones who skipped the grand opening ceremony. During the public event, the crowd was noticeably sparse, especially in the up-front sections designated for both public officials and civil rights veterans. While some were unable to attend because of the weather, others decided to skip the ceremony on principle. Closed streets and a sense of mass confusion didn’t help, either.
Still, the show went on. White Mississippians were particularly prominent: Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, former Gov. William F. Winter, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) all spoke. Although black Mississippians, such as former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, were onstage, few spoke.
Reuben Anderson, Mississippi’s first black state Supreme Court justice, served as the master of ceremonies, while Myrlie Evers-Williams and W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO La June Montgomery Tabron—a descendant of the former slaves of Confederate President Jefferson Davis who founded the all-black Mississippi town Mound Bayou—were the only other official black speakers.
Tabron was happy to share her family background and promised a $1 million matching grant to the museums. Evers-Williams was the most embraced speaker of the day, garnering standing ovations. The native Mississippian, whose husband, Medgar Evers—Mississippi’s most well-known civil rights activist—was murdered at his home in Jackson on June 12, 1963, admitted to feeling a bundle of emotions. After explaining how she made peace with the existence of two museums, she shared their power.
“I stand before you today saying I believe in the state of my birth. And that is something I never thought I would say, but today I stand before you and I speak the truth,” she said. “Going through the museum of my history, I wept. Because I felt the blows. I felt the bullets. I felt the tears. I felt the cries. But I also sensed the hope that dwelled in the hearts of all of those people and those children.”
After the ribbon was cut, with Evers-Williams taking a central position in the sea of powerful white Mississippians, attendees were allowed to enter. The museum contains several galleries within the main gallery. Guests traveled through such galleries as “This Little Light of Mine,” where civil rights leaders are honored in words, imagery and song; “A Tremor in the Iceberg,” which deals specifically with the 1960s; and “I Question America,” which tackles Freedom Summer, bombed churches and other societal upheaval. Uncovering hidden history was the general mood. Black attendees could be heard sharing stories about what their parents and grandparents had told them about some of the state’s most turbulent times.
At the exhibition, acknowledging the civil rights wade-ins in Biloxi, Miss., which helped desegregate Southern beaches, the son of Dr. Gilbert Mason Sr., who led that effort, could be overheard speaking about his father. There was also an image of Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march through the Delta that prompted a gentleman to point out the men in the photo, noting that he was there but much farther down the line and beyond the camera’s lens. One attendee remarked that she was getting unexpected history that day.
It is this history that Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba evoked when he said, “Mr. President, we don’t need you in Mississippi to tell us what the civil rights movement is about,” during an earlier press conference announcing why he and other prominent black officials would not be attending the private event where Trump spoke.
Speaking to The Root, Anderson—who envisioned a museum honoring the state’s civil rights struggle that he helped lead on the legal front as part of the Mississippi NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—lamented the absence of his comrades Thompson and Lewis, whom he spoke to about their decision. “They could have come and not seen the president,” he said.
Although he understood why they decided not to attend, Anderson was still proud of the museum. “To raise $19 million in Mississippi is a major challenge. We don’t have a single major Fortune 500 company, so I’m real proud of the fact that we raised $19 million,” he said during a post-ceremony press conference.
Anderson’s candor didn’t end there.
“I can’t go through it. It’s difficult for me because it’s not history,” he confessed. “I went through [the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum partially] today with the president and it’s unpleasant. I don’t enjoy seeing Mississippi’s history. But I’ll get around to [a full tour] with my grandson. It will take me a while but that museum, the Civil Rights Museum, is not pleasant.”