Clarion Ledger: Civil Rights, history museums let Mississippi look in the mirror

OXFORD – There is one Mississippi, but many, many stories. That’s not only the theme, but also the challenge for curators who developed displays in the conjoined Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The curtain will be pulled back on Dec. 9 in downtown Jackson, but don’t bother trying to get inside during opening weekend. Six thousand time-specific tickets sold out in hours.

Will there be controversy? Yes, the directors, Pamela Junior and Rachel Myers, say there always is.

The concept of a civil rights museum has sparked passion for nearly 20 years. The idea was dead on arrival when first put to the Legislature in 2000. Hemming and hawing lasted for another 10 years.

It was in 2011, with 35 dissenting votes, that the Legislature OK’d $40 million in bonds — on condition that half be reimbursed with private donations. What seemed to have eased the logjam was pairing of the museums — one telling 15,000 years of Mississippi history and the other attempting to explain the years when Mississippi was the crucible in which the legal and systematic separation of citizens based on race came to an end.

Although the museums share the same door, they are separate with separate admission fees. The cost is $8 each or $12 for both. A person can visit one without visiting the other, which is, at least to some extent, an accommodation to different sensibilities.

Mississippi has abundant museums, most of them privately operated. There’s the new Grammy Museum in Cleveland, one of several centered on music. There’s the U.S.S. Cairo Museum in Vicksburg, one of several centered on the Civil War. There are local history museums, such as the Old Court House Museum, also in Vicksburg. There are industry museums such as the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi. There are niche museums such as Jim Henson Museum in Leland and there are many, many art museums.

The challenge for the Museum of Mississippi History has been to incorporate all aspects,  and the challenge of the Civil Rights Museum has been to convey, with authenticity, the decades when official Mississippi rejected equal rights.

Both accomplish this in a world-class format of sequenced, interactive galleries. The idea is immersion — broad views and tiny details. In some museums, patrons read a card, look at a map or artifact and move on. In the new museums, there’s some of that. The overall effect, though, is to have people exit with a depth of understanding, appreciation — and motivation.

When you think about it, most other states have histories that are, well, fairly vanilla. In other words, how hard could it be (no disrespect intended) to tell the story of Idaho or Oklahoma or New Mexico? Mississippi, we all know, falls into a very different category. It’s more complicated here.

Mississippi is among states where native people were told to get out; it’s among states where slavery was key to the early economy; it’s one of 13 states that left the Union; and it’s one where a third or more citizens, because of their skin color, were legally classed as having few of the rights normally associated with citizenship.

So why should we want to look at the rifle used to kill Medgar Evers, see the doors from Bryant Grocery in Monday where Emmett Till committed a social faux pas that cost him his life? Why should we want to hear voices from that time, to listen as Fannie Lou Hamer sings, “This Little Light of Mine?”

The answer is the same as why we should want to kindle pride in the state’s great writers, Miss America winners, medical pioneers. It’s the same as our need to know the nation’s first state-funded college for women was here and the first athlete on a box of Wheaties was Mississippi’s Walter Payton.

Many stories. Some trifling. Some world-changing. Some epic in terms of horror. Some epic in terms of heroism.

Taken together they tell us who we are, how we got where we are.

Why does that matter? Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”

For too long, others have told the story of Mississippi. At last — at long last — Mississippi has decided to tell its own story truthfully, accurately, without blinking. Some say museums are about “wallowing in the past” instead of living for the day, but that’s wrong. These museums say, “This is who we are,” and give us context to live better.

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