JACKSON — As Lonnie Bunch walked through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Thursday, he mused to museum director Pam Junior about the prominent figures on display that he knew — like the Ku Klux Klan leader with whom he came face-to-face, and the family of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy whose brutal murder in 1955 is widely regarded as the nation’s final push into the civil rights movement.
The founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bunch has intimate knowledge of the persistent unequal treatment of black Americans. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened in December, focuses on Mississippi events and figures of the movement from 1945 to 1976.
But during his tour of the museum on Thursday, Bunch said Mississippi’s story is not just local. Mississippi’s evolution of its treatment of minorities — from native people, to slaves, to African-Americans — is symbolic of the rest of the country, he said.
“Mississippi was the example of where people would come to change the country,” Bunch said. “If they could change Mississippi, they could change the rest of America.”
Walking through the museum, Bunch said he was struck by the youth of many Mississippians who fought for change — like the Freedom Riders who fought for unsegregated transportation who were arrested in Jackson and sentenced to 30 days in Parchman State Penitentiary.
Young people like the Freedom Riders are still making change today, Bunch said, calling the creators of March for Our Lives members of a generation “that really can make America better.”
Coming to a museum like the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Bunch said, is important in today’s political climate to remind visitors that in order to better the future, you have to confront the past and present.
“Regardless of who’s in the White House, regardless of the political era we’re in, this (museum) reminds me of the possibility of America,” Bunch said. And if you can keep that notion in people’s minds — the possibility of what America can be — then we could really be the country of our dreams.”
The museum and its counterpart, the Museum of Mississippi History, opened in December in commemoration of the state’s 200th anniversary as the nation’s 20th state. Both are funded with a combination of state tax dollars and private donations and are located under the same roof in Mississippi’s capital city.
The Civil Rights Museum drew national attention when local civil rights leaders boycotted its state-sponsored opening ceremony after Mississippi’s Republican Gov. Phil Bryant invited President Donald Trump to attend. A separate celebration was organized over two months later, sans presidential appearance.
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