Myrlie Evers-Williams once had a hard time understanding how her husband could still love their home state of Mississippi so deeply.
After all, Medgar Evers grew up in the segregated South and, like many African Americans, left America to fight in Europe during World War II, only to return to a state where black veterans were scowled at, spat upon and, in some cases, lynched.
As the head of the state NAACP branch, Evers had also investigated the murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager savagely beaten and killed for flirting with a white woman, and helped an Air Force veteran named James Meredith become the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. A firebombing at the Everses’ home in Jackson, Miss., forced Medgar and Myrlie to subject their young children to duck-and-cover drills in case of future terror attacks.
“I often wondered how Medgar could tolerate the anger and the hatred that was shown to him—to his people, to all of us. How could he do it and not go off on some kind of rampage?” Evers-Williams recalled in a recent interview. “I told him I don’t think I would be able to do it. He would just look at me and shake his head and say, ‘Forget about yourself, it’s larger than you. It’s about all of us.”
Then, late on a Wednesday night in June 1963, a Klansman named Byron De La Beckwith hid in the bushes with a rifle and shot Medgar Evers in the back. It took three juries and more than 30 years to put Beckwith behind bars, where he died. After everything that her family endured, it’s easy to understand why Evers-Williams, who grew up in Vicksburg, Miss., had difficulty trusting the state of Mississippi.
Yet, on Saturday, Evers-Williams will be seated alongside fellow civil rights veterans, political officials and other dignitaries to help cut the ribbon for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. President Donald Trump, who was endorsed by Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles, is also scheduled to attend the ceremony. This, despite Trump’s own rocky relationship with African Americans, including failing to condemn white nationalists and criticizing black pro athletes for protesting police brutality.
The grand opening of the nation’s first state-run civil rights museum coincides with the opening of the adjacent Museum of Mississippi History as well as the state’s bicentennial.
The opening of the two facilities, which together cost upward of $90 million to construct, comes after a series of early controversies about the Civil Rights Museum’s location and the decision to build two museums—quietly derided in some circles as separate but equal buildings, a reference to the prevailing dictum of Jim Crow.
Meanwhile, Mississippi is embroiled in debate over whether to remove a Confederate battle emblem from its official state flag, the last one in the country to incorporate the Southern cross.
Given the state’s racial history and unwillingness to let go of vestiges of the Confederacy, the opening also has raised questions about whether a state-government-run museum will tell the whole, ugly truth about the civil rights era.
These are questions that Pamela Junior, the executive director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, gets regularly. Junior says that as long as she’s in charge, the museum will tell “the good, the bad and all of the ugly.”
As for the rationale for the two museums, Junior, who was not involved in the early planning of the museum, said the History Museum attempts to cover 50,000 years, only 30 of which include the civil rights movement. By contrast, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum devotes an entire high-tech facility, complete with exhibits, artifacts, films, meeting space and future programming, to the time period spanning 1619—when the first enslaved Africans arrived at a Jamestown, Va., colony—to 1965 and beyond.
“We were ground zero for the movement. Why should people go to Memphis [Tenn.] when we were here?” says Junior, referring to the National Civil Rights Museum, housed three hours away at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated (the National Civil Rights Museum is run by a private foundation, not the state of Tennessee). “We’re telling the truth. It’s not a wonderful story. It’s beautiful. Then again, it is in darkness that we finally see light. A lot of people went into the tunnel in the state of Mississippi in order to bring light to Mississippi.”
The museum consists of eight galleries that cover almost 350 years of African-American history in Mississippi, starting with slavery and going through Reconstruction and Jim Crow’s early days; four steel pillars carry the names of people who were lynched.
Small theaters, with trigger warnings posted out front, highlight pivotal moments in the movement, including the stories of three civil rights workers who were killed near Philadelphia, Miss.; Medgar Evers; and Emmett Till, whose case is the subject of a short film narrated by Mississippi native Oprah Winfrey.
The front doors from the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Miss., in which Emmett walked through for the last time in the summer of 1955, are on display.
Deborah Watts, a Till cousin who grew up in Nebraska, was a toddler when Emmett was kidnapped, beaten and murdered after a white woman named Carolyn Bryant said the boy flirted with her and, in the aftermath of his death, his mangled face appeared in Jet magazine. Earlier this year, news reports emerged that Bryant, who is still alive, fabricated parts of her story.
Watts remembers that there was such a heavy mourning when Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, visited Omaha to give a speech, Watts ripped up flyers that were being distributed about the incident; in her child’s mind, the flyers were the cause of the sadness. Watts, who now lives in the Minneapolis area and founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said that Mississippi went from a place she avoided to some place to which she felt drawn, adding that the Civil Rights Museum represents a new day.
“There’s a greater sense of determination and responsibility to Emmett and those others whose blood was shed there and how important it was for justice to prevail,” Watts said.
In keeping with the theme of telling ugly-but-whole truths, the .30-06 Enfield rifle Beckwith used to kill Medgar Evers will be on display in one of the theaters; during a film on the Evers story, special lights will illuminate the gun.
His widow, Evers-Williams, says she is surprised that the rifle was ever recovered, much less ended up in a museum. Yet she is grateful the gun will be on display to send a message that weapons can be used for good but that Beckwith’s rifle was used for “pure evil.”
“People will see it as a weapon that was used to take his life, but also, perhaps, as a weapon that was used—unlike the person who pulled the trigger intended—to lift Medgar up in a way that we understand who he was, how he felt about his state of Mississippi, his people, people as a whole, and how he felt about his country,” Evers-Williams said.
For Evers-Williams, learning to entrust the state of Mississippi with Medgar’s legacy took some soul-searching. She hopes that the Mississippi museums can be a major force in helping us be what we can be as a nation.
“I am human. I am still angry. I have been able to remove myself from the deep hatred that I felt when my husband was shot down at his door and our children ran out crying, ‘Daddy, get up! Get up, Daddy.’ But he said don’t hate; work to alleviate it. And with these two museums, I hope there will be people internationally who will learn about Medgar and so many others who stood for justice and equality in this country,” she said.
Editor’s note: The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History open to the public on Saturday. Tickets for the opening are sold out but can be purchased for later dates here.