Guardian: Mississippi’s bold new Civil Rights Museum offers unflinching view of US history

Jackson’s new Civil Rights Museum and its neighbour, the Museum of Mississippi History, have a joint launch on 9 December, in advance of a year of events across the south marking 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination

By Ella Buchan – The sculptures blocked my path and rooted me to the spot. Etched with the name and alleged crime of each known lynching victim in Mississippi, these tall monoliths pierced the galleries like stab wounds.

Visiting the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is intense, shaming and shocking – just like the subject it covers – and it tackles its topic with unflinching, unapologetic rigour.

‘We walk in together and we see all of our history together.’ Exterior of the two Mississippi museums at night. All photos: Tom Beck

The first state-sponsored museum dedicated to the movement, it opens at 222 North Street, Jackson, on 9 December alongside the Museum of Mississippi History. The joint launch and shared entrance is no coincidence.

“We walk in together, and we see all of our history together,” says marketing director Stephenie Morrisey.

Topics overlap: slavery, the civil war, Jim Crow laws, the Delta blues. The result is a sweeping view of Mississippi’s history that puts the civil rights movement into context.

Image from the gallery: Mississippi’s Freedom Struggle, providing a civil rights timeline from 1619 to 1865.

It will be 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on 4 April 2018 and a series of events is planned throughout the south. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, housed (in the Lorraine Motel where King was shot) is dedicating a year to MLK50, with poetry evenings and symposiums. In Alabama, the tourist board has launched a Civil Rights Trail leaflet and app. Sites include the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where Klansmen planted a bomb killing four young girls. Hertz is adding an MLK route to its Road Trip Planner app: stops include his Atlanta birthplace, his first church posting in Montgomery, Alabama, and Nashville, Tennessee – where the student lunch counter sit-ins began.

In Jackson, the two museums – which cost $90m to build – loom beyond manicured lawns fringed with pink muhly grass. To the right of the handsome, colonnaded history structure, the Civil Rights Museum dominates. The sepia facade is etched with overlapping triangles, discordant angles colliding to form an M: the museum’s logo. The effect is compelling and uncomfortable.

“[The design] came from analysing photos of clashes between activists and police,” explains Richard Woollacott from design firm Gerard Hilferty and Associates, which worked on the project with architects Perkins+Will. Focus groups held throughout the state, in 2011, returned with an overwhelming request: tell the truth, no matter how brutal.

“This museum needed to be real. It needed to be the voices of people who lived it,” says Woollacott.

Imprisoned after their read-in at the Jackson Municipal Library, the Tougaloo Nine, along with their respective mugshots, are highlighted in one of the galleries.

Exploring the eight galleries, I was confronted by harsh reality at every turn. Mugshots of teenagers, arrested for requesting voting rights. Photos of students, suited, booted and linking arms, displaying dignity in the face of snarling hatred. Posters depicting crude racial stereotypes. A crumpled, ashen car door – a remnant of the firebombing that killed civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966.

Seven of the galleries encircle a central space: This Little Light of Mine. Images of civil rights heroes plaster the walls, reaching to the ceiling. An astonishing light sculpture sends ribbon-like tendrils through archways into other exhibits, projecting inspiring quotes onto the walls. A civil rights anthem plays, constantly, swelling in volume as more visitors fill the room.

“The more people come together, the more light we have and the louder the music,” said Morrisey. “Just like the civil rights movement.”

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