Mississippi, a battleground in the struggle for civil rights, has been slow to embrace its racist past. A new state-funded museum tells the story.
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President Trump is drawing criticism from civil rights groups who are upset about his weekend plans. The president is scheduled to be in Jackson, Miss., tomorrow when the state opens a civil rights museum as part of bicentennial events. Mississippi is the setting for a key chapter in the nation’s struggle for equality. But the state has been slow to acknowledge the racism and violence in its past. The new museum now tells that difficult story. NPR’s Debbie Elliott has a preview.
PAMELA JUNIOR: OK, everybody, come on in.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As construction workers put up the last exhibits, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Director Pamela Junior shows a small group the developing galleries.
JUNIOR: This is the beginning – Africans coming over through the transatlantic slave trade.
ELLIOTT: We journey through the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction – then a turn into a room dominated by a tree, its limbs sprawling overhead.
JUNIOR: This tree here has a lot of symbolism to me because we’re walking into some deep times now. And it’s not only you see – think about the tree in lynching. But you look at the images – Jim Crow images that are up as leaves on the limbs of the trees. This is when it starts getting dark. Let’s go on in a little bit.
ELLIOTT: Junior says visitors will experience cramped and dark spaces as they move through the museum’s galleries.
JUNIOR: The movement was very uncomfortable. I want them to feel uncomfortable so they can understand that once they get out of this tunnel, that they’re going to come to light. And their challenge is to make Mississippi the best Mississippi that they can.
ELLIOTT: Junior says they will encourage visitors to leave the museum and then travel around the state to learn more at key historical sites. And there are plenty – Bryant’s Grocery, where Emmett Till was fatefully accused of flirting with a white shopkeeper, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s grave and the Neshoba County memorial to three civil rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer.
HILLMAN FRAZIER: Mississippi’s ground zero when it comes to civil rights.
ELLIOTT: State Senator Hillman Frazier of Jackson was instrumental in getting legislation passed for the new museum and served on the planning committee. It was a long time coming, he says.
FRAZIER: Folks thought we should forget about that part of history. Don’t tell the story. And just don’t bring up anything that – it’s painful. But that’s part of our history.
ELLIOTT: Civil rights tourism has taken off in other states – for instance, in Alabama, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery are a big draw. In 2006, Republican Governor Haley Barbour helped push the Mississippi project forward, seeing the economic benefit. But to secure funding from the legislature, Frazier says the civil rights museum was paired with a state history museum, giving lawmakers political cover to approve it.
FRAZIER: Some just didn’t want to vote for a straight-up civil rights museum because of just what they represent. And they just didn’t want to bring those issues up.
ELLIOTT: State officials reject the idea that the dual museums represent a continuation of the separate but equal doctrine and say they complement one another. Set in downtown Jackson near the state archives, the two buildings are joined by a common lobby. The history museum gives a broad overview.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Civil War transformed Mississippi.
ELLIOTT: It spans from the Stone Age and Native American cultures through the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 to Hurricane Katrina. The civil rights museum brings a deeper focus to the 30-year period when Mississippi was at the center of the movement. Foot soldiers have donated artifacts, including the family of murdered Hattiesburg NAACP leader Vernon Dahmer. He was targeted for offering to pay the poll tax for African-Americans who wanted to vote. Dahmer was killed in 1966, when the KKK firebombed his home and surrounded it, waiting to shoot to death anyone who tried to escape the burning house.
ELLIE DAHMER: That was a horrible night.
ELLIOTT: Ellie Dahmer is Vernon Dahmer’s 92-year-old widow. She says she never thought she’d see it documented in a museum.
- DAHMER: We lived it. And some of them died with it. The rest of Mississippi needs to know about it.
ELLIOTT: Museum Director Pamela Junior shows the family a photograph of the four oldest sons who returned from the military after their father was killed. They’re standing by the remains of the family home.
JUNIOR: You see the brothers, all with uniforms on. And what do I say? I say that his sons were fighting for America. And Mr. Dahmer was here in Mississippi fighting to be an American. This is amazing – amazing piece right here – amazing.
ELLIOTT: Vernon Dahmer Jr. stops to gather himself when he sees the picture.
VERNON DAHMER JR.: Yeah, that was a tough day…
- DAHMER: Yes, yes.
- DAHMER JR.: …You know, to have to come home and look at where we were raised and reflect back on the memories of growing up. And it didn’t need to happen.
ELLIOTT: He’s moved by the museum’s treatment of Mississippi’s brutal past.
- DAHMER JR.: We’ve come a long way. And it’s something that we can all be proud of – got a long way to go. So today I’ll stand here. And I’m very, very proud and very pleased what I’ve you been able to see. His brother Dennis Dahmer was 11 at the time.
DENNIS DAHMER: What they did to send a message to terrorize black folks and people sympathetic to black folks…
ELLIOTT: Despite a confession from one of the klansmen, it was more than 30 years before Mississippi convicted a KKK grand wizard for Dahmer’s murder. Ellie Dahmer says progress has been slow. And it’s up to white people now to see it through.
- DAHMER: If as many as them will stand as the blacks stood in ’66, we’ll see a change in Mississippi. But you all are going to have to take a stand. We’ve already stood.
ELLIOTT: Now a new controversy has developed after Republican Governor Phil Bryant invited President Trump to the museum’s opening. Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat and civil rights icon, has canceled his plans to participate in Saturday’s dedication. Lewis and Mississippi Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson say it’s an insult for Trump to be there, given his response to a white nationalist rallies and other racially divisive comments. Governor Bryant is rejecting calls to revoke the invitation.
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PHIL BRYANT: Well, that’s just sad. The president of the United States should be able – and we’re very thankful that he is going to come for this historic occasion.
ELLIOTT: Bryant says the president will honor Mississippi with his presence.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson.
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