By Jemar Tisby — JACKSON, Miss. — When President Trump decided at the last minute to attend the grand opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum here on Saturday, the museums’ staff flew into overdrive. I saw it in their sincere but tense smiles, in the constant buzz of walkie-talkie chatter. A boulder was dropped in their path, yet the event went smoothly.
It wasn’t an easy road to get here. The state history museum had been closed for a time after Hurricane Katrina ripped off the roof in 2005. A bill to open a civil rights museum was proposed in 2000, but it got state funding only in 2011. Two years after that, organizers broke ground.
The day was the result of efforts by a small group of passionate and determined Mississippians who accomplished something great despite many obstacles. That is the story of the grand opening of the two museums — and it is also the story of the civil rights movement in America.
In 1994, the historian John Dittmer wrote “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” which helped reshape the way scholars thought about the civil rights movement. Most of the well-known histories at that point focused on the big names — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, Rosa Parks. But Mr. Dittmer’s book turned attention to the activism of sharecroppers, domestic servants and everyday people. It argued they were the ones who really forced a transformation.
“This grass-roots insurgency focused its efforts around community organization, engaged in direct action protest to dramatize its program, and won major victories, culminating in the Civil Rights Act,” he wrote. One of those local people who chose to resist was Medgar Evers, the field secretary for the Mississippi branch of the NAACP. But it cost him his life.
Just after midnight on June 12, 1963, Evers arrived at his home in Jackson. He had come from a meeting promoting voting rights for African-Americans and carried a stack of T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.”
As he walked from his car to his house, a single shot rang out from a cluster of honeysuckle bushes across the street. The bullet hit Evers in the back. He fell to the ground, but managed to get back up and stumble 30 feet to his front door. His wife, Myrlie Evers, came out to find her husband lying on their front step covered in blood. He died at a hospital a short time later.
Fifty-four years after her husband’s murder, Myrlie Evers-Williams, a lifelong civil rights activist in her own right, spoke at the museums’s grand opening: “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.”
She closed with a resounding call. “Go tell it on the mountain that Mississippi has two museums linked together in love, in hope and in justice.”
In addition to Ms. Evers-Williams, the stage was arrayed with dignitaries like the former Mississippi governor William Winter and Senator Roger Wicker. Yet there were notable absences.
John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights legend, declined to attend, along with Representative Bennie Thompson. “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” they said in a statement. They were not protesting the museums and encouraged everyone to visit after the president left.
The museums are officially part of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, a state-funded organization. That means the Mississippi state flag, which features emblems of the Confederacy, was flying behind the platform. So elected officials announced the opening of a site dedicated to the civil rights movement in the shadow of a flag used to terrorize black citizens.
And then there was Phil Bryant, the governor of Mississippi. While most of the national attention focused on Mr. Trump’s visit, Mr. Bryant must bear responsibility for putting what should have been an unreservedly joyous celebration under a pall of negativity.
It is not unusual for a governor to ask the current president to attend important local ceremonies, but surely Mr. Bryant knew the implications of inviting this particular president to the opening of a civil rights museum.
Even though no president had perfect stances on civil rights, Mr. Trump’s list of offenses continues to grow. After all, this is a man whose most well-known foray into politics before the presidency was questioning the citizenship of the nation’s first black president, a myth he apparently still harbors.
The president spent less than an hour in the two museums. But as he stared at walls lined with photos of people who were beaten and killed for insisting on their own dignity, he must have seen what black people have to lose when their leaders fail to secure their civil rights.
But since President Trump plays no productive role in advancing civil rights, and Mississippians cannot count on their governor to do the same, then local people must do what they’ve always done when their leaders have failed them — unite in pursuit of justice.
Outside the area cordoned off for the president’s visit, a group of about 150 protesters had assembled. They carried signs that read “Trump go home“ and chanted: “Fired up, Mississippi! Fired up!” Recognizing the continuing struggle for truth and peace, they mobilized for progress.
The opening of the museums shows that it will be the local people who bring about change.
Jemar Tisby (@JemarTisby) is the president of the Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion and culture. He is a co-host of the podcast Pass the Mic and a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Mississippi.
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