The Tougaloo 9 display at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. Photos by author.

Mississippi’s truth-telling new museum

The nation noticed that the ground shifted in Alabama last week. Not as many picked up on the simultaneous quake next door in Mississippi, where the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum has had its first regular day of operation. The circus of President Donald Trump’s bizarre December 9 touchdown in Jackson to bless the museum is just a surreal memory. The museum is now buckled down to its mission: telling the unvarnished story of Mississippi’s white supremacy in the nation’s only state-sponsored civil rights museum.

There’s a seismic historical rumble in the fact that the state that was the twentieth-century epicenter of civil-rights resistance and deadly violence is documenting its own painful story and bloody hands.

“Mississippi was ground zero for the civil rights movement,” said museum director Pamela Junior. “We have our own story. Who better to tell it than us?”

A steady stream of visitors came to take in the museum for themselves on its first regular day, as the museum director and other staffers stood near the entrance to Gallery One, taking in a satisfying sight: Arrivals, Black and white, making their way inside to confront Mississippi’s past. The staff watched as six years of development came to life in the form of willing, breathing visitors. I attended with another cradle Mississippian. We made our visit plans weeks ago, compelled to come. We were five steps into Gallery One when tears began streaming down both our faces. We hadn’t made it to the first display yet.

Warning signs over the graphic viewing content are in place inside the angular, terra cotta-clad institution, centered on Mississippi’s timeline from 1945 until 1976. Victims of all known Mississippi lynchings are memorialized by name, date and place. (Along with 1800s listings are more recent deaths, including of the Rev. Isaac Simmons in Liberty, Mississippi in 1944 for “hiring a lawyer to protect land title.” All was well at Simmons’s 220-acre, debt-free farm until nearby whites suspected oil was under his property.) An immersive theater is dedicated to Medgar Evers; the Army rifle used in his 1963 assassination is illuminated when the narration comes to the moment of his death.

A half-burned Klan cross is on display, along with Ku Klux Klan robes. There’s a recreated Bryant’s Store (with the actual doors), the Delta grocery where Emmett Till’s supposed flirtation with the owner led to his 1955 lynching.

Freedom Summer account plays inside a replica bombed church. Tabloid-size mug shots of the 300-odd Freedom Riders arrested for defying the segregated interstate bus travel system paper one wall. To experience Jim Crow’s psychic toll, racial jeers rain down on visitors outside a replica town movie theater. Bright-hued blow-ups of racially insulting vintage ads are overhead, as are branches of a fabricated tree. The tree hints at how Black communities gave members strength and support within their boundaries when faced with the specter of lynchings.

If the museum disturbs, that’s the point, said its director Junior. “That’s why we’re here.”

Unfortunately, it took the surreal news that Trump was attending what was planned to be a watershed grand-opening moment for the museum to attract much national notice. National media came and went on December 9 due to Trump’s presence. Public Trump outrage led to damage-control in the grand-opening plans after many speakers cancelled, however. When the official schedule came out ahead of the weekend ceremony, Trump was to be kept out of public sight and earshot. He took a fast late-morning spin through the museum and then read a nine-minute speech to a closed-door, hand-selected crowd. Civil rights is “big stuff,” he said. He addressed Medgar Evers’s 84-year-old widow Myrlie by her first name. Then he left.

If the museum disturbs, that’s the point, said its director Junior. “That’s why we’re here.”

For Mississippians in the bright chilly December air of the outside ceremony, however, the speeches by Myrlie Evers-Williams and former Governor William Winter, 94, made the opening a historic moment. Evers-Williams took the podium before an estimated 1,800. “I implore upon you. Visit these institutions. Learn about the state of Mississippi. Learn about those who cared enough to put their lives on the line. Learn. Give. Go,” she said. “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.”

“Walk through the halls, and be able to put your fingers in the bullet holes. Walk through these halls and hear the sounds of the gospels, of the cries, of the tears.”

Museum Director Pamela Junior in front of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

It matters that Mississippi tells the story

The new museum is a $90 million project built in combination with a general state history museum. While there are an estimated 300 museums focused on African-American history already operating in the U.S., this museum is in Mississippi, automatically putting it in a category of its own. It has an intense bloody history to tell.

“We were known as the belly of the beast,” said state Senator John Horhn, who first began introducing legislation to fund a state civil rights museum in 2000. “Mississippi’s story needed to be told, and it needed to be told by Mississippians.”

“It was definitely the worst of all the states,” said Dr. John Fleming of Yellow Springs, Ohio, an administrator and advisor to African-American history museums. “For the state to turn around and document some of the horrendous atrocities committed against Blacks by whites is outstanding.”

The jutting lines of the civil-rights museum’s modern brown façade stand out from the surrounding state buildings’ gray neoclassicism. Architect Philip Freelon, who also headed the design team for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was among the designers along with several state-based architectural firms.

“The civil-rights piece was more contemporary in its design. That was intentional,” said Freelon. “The angular lines are lines depicting, yes, strife and conflict, but also the resolution of that into a beautiful forward-looking structure,” said the Durham, North Carolina-based architect. “Part of the concept was creating non-parallel lines to really recognize the fact that there’s some tension there.”

Strips of tan muhly grass front the approach. The grass is a Southern mainstay, known to thrive in difficult conditions. “The angular geometry of the civil rights building is mirrored in the configuration of the paving and landscape,” Freelon said. “Subliminally, people get it.”

“We were known as the belly of the beast,” said state Senator John Horhn, who first began introducing legislation to fund a state civil rights museum in 2000. “Mississippi’s story needed to be told, and it needed to be told by Mississippians.”

At the museum’s interior core, visitors circle back into a meditative sky-lit central atrium. At the center is a 40-foot sculpture that spills out a blue-violet glow and the sound of a chorus.

The sculpture becomes brighter and louder in proportion to the number of people in the lofty 60-foot high space. “The more people who come in, the more the blades will activate, and it all comes together,” said Richard Woollacott, Hilferty & Associates exhibit designer. “It’s based on the concept of every person being a light. And if their lights come together, that was what the movement was.”

The Athens, Ohio-based exhibit designer said, “It becomes a place to decompress from some of the content you may have seen. People may need a moment.”

On the first regular day of business, This Little Light and Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around sounded sporadically at the museum’s core, the songs’ strains rolling through the nearby exhibits. Junior had moved from her earlier spot by the museum’s entry into the glowing center chamber. She chatted with visitors and occasionally swayed to the freedom song of the moment.

Artifacts from Mississippi Freedom Summer on display.

Building a collection—and trust

The road to opening the museum has come with historic potholes. Mississippi government’s guilty role in its civil-rights past complicated the museum’s birthing process. Could a state government which waged war on its Black citizens be trusted to tell the story? At numerous 2012 community meetings from the Delta to the Gulf Coast, African American audiences offered skeptical feedback.

“It’s state-sponsored, so how can we trust the state who was essentially the largest culprit?” Woollacott remembered being asked.

During the 1950s and 1960s, state leaders consulted with the white supremacist Citizens’ Council to gear all public policies to stonewall integration. The state government also spied on civil-rights supporters through its Sovereignty Commission. Following Evers’ 1963 murder, at the trial, former governor Ross Barnett notoriously shook hands with Evers’ killer at the defense table while Evers was testifying on the witness stand. The trial ended with a hung jury.

The museum team insisted the presentation would be truthful. “It had to be told, the good and the bad by the people who experienced it," said Woollacott.

Skepticism didn’t end with public attitudes. Doubt translated into unexpectedly slow donations of artifacts. Department of Archives and History staff chalked up the slow flow as a feature of the museum’s recent timeline. Living people aren’t ready to part with objects or don’t regard their objects as artifacts, said Lucy Allen, museum division director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Another truth was the limited material possessions of struggle participants. Fannie Lou Hamer was evicted from her sharecropper’s house because of her voting activism.

“She barely had a pillow case,” Allen said. The display cases were made to hold additional objects as they arrive. Yet the museum is not exactly spare. A projected 800 objects and 1,000 documents are mixed in with the photographs, graphic displays and video presentations.

Proposals for the museum dates back almost two decades. In 2000, Horhn began sponsoring funding bills, legislation which died annually. Curiously, a crucial proponent in the road to the museum became former governor Haley Barbour, a long-time national GOP player and known-quantity conservative.

“It’s state-sponsored, so how can we trust the state who was essentially the largest culprit?”

“Governor Barbour certainly was the Republican leader and the conservative leader who carried the banner for this thing,” Horhn said. Did Barbour’s successful 2011 push for museum funding have anything to do with his brief four-month presidential bid that same year? Barbour says no, but Mississippi political observers say yes.

“I think all the signs were there that it wouldn’t hurt his prospects of running for president to get behind a project like this,” Horhn said. “It was truly a case of strange bedfellows.” Barbour muscled legislators to authorize the museum with unprecedented determination, Horhn said. “To his credit, Governor Barbour came down and walked the floor of the Senate.”

Barbour said his 2012 presidential bid had “not a thing” to do with his museum support. His 2011 sense of urgency gave time to complete the museums for bicentennial of the state’s December 10, 1817 admission to the United States. “If we missed that date, it would make it harder to make the point,” he said.

“A lot of people say, ‘We’re surprised you did it,’ or, ‘We’re pleased you did it,’ but I don’t think anybody has a hard time understanding why you should do it,” Barbour said about the civil-rights museum. “Whether it’s something you’re proud of, or whether it’s something you wished hadn’t happened, you still need to present it because people need to know what really happened and why so bad things can be avoided and good things built on.”

Protesting, then and now

And yet. Four days before the December 9 grand opening, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced he had invited President Donald Trump to be part of the festivities, to the outrage of many. Appropriately, the museum’s subject matter uncannily spilled out into a new-generation of protests before its blood-red ribbon could be cut over the weekend. Bryant’s lobbing of the Trump bomb demonstrated how raw and fragile the state’s ecoclimate of racial trust continues to be. Even so, opening ceremony boycotters pointed to the fact that their disgust was over Trump, not the museum.

For Geraldine Edwards Hollis, 76, the museum comes almost 57 years after her moment in American history. She and fellow members of the Tougaloo College Nine were arrested for staging a March 27, 1961 Read In at the whites-only main library. It was the capital city’s first protest. NAACP leader Evers selected the library for the first demonstration to highlight how Jackson Blacks were forced to support a whites-only service with their tax money.

The septuagenarians stood toe-to-toe with images of their college selves, life-size black-and-white blowups on the gallery wall. Above were their March 1961 Jackson Police Department mug shots.

Despite their 1960s mark, the Tougaloo Nine didn’t gather again for decades. No group sought them out, nor did they get together on their own. “I guess I would say I was a bit hurt or a bit disturbed that what we did made a big difference but the news media and everybody didn’t pick up on it,” Hollis said.

Neither did Hollis speak of her arrest herself for many years. When she married in 1964, she kept it a secret from her in-laws. Same for the schools where she taught physical education, first in Mississippi and later after moving to the Stockton, California area in 1968.

This past summer, most of the Nine reunited in Jackson for a belated historic marker unveiling for the 1961 library protest. The group was offered a preview of the almost-complete civil-rights museum.

The Tougaloo Nine in front of a historical marker in Jackson commemorating their protest.

“They did not tell us what we were going to see,” Hollis said. “They didn’t give us a clue.” When the Read In group was ushered into the museum’s Gallery Five, the first of them to spot the exhibit let out a yelp. The septuagenarians stood toe-to-toe with images of their college selves, life-size black-and-white blowups on the gallery wall. Above were their March 1961 Jackson Police Department mug shots.

“When you walk into a place and literally see yourself so that you could shake your own hand, it’s really something,” Hollis said. “It was really overpowering. It was emotional. I had a sensation of real joy.”

Five of the Tougaloo Nine pose in front of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum section on their role in the civil rights movement.

Showing exhibits to the protagonists who made the history was a regular pre-opening rite for the museum's director. Some of Junior’s preview sessions were less about elation than relived horror, such as with the widow and children of Vernon Dahmer. Dahmer was a Hattiesburg area business owner and voting rights proponent killed at age 57 in 1966 after the Ku Klux Klan torched the family home. His bullet-battered truck is on display.

On grand opening morning, unintentionally, the Trump backlash brought about what no professional museum exhibit planner could have pulled off for the day: open-air protests invoking the events captured in the museum’s Sixties displays. A Saturday street protest led by rookie organizers via Facebook drew about 200 demonstrators, some of whom made hours-long car trips to take part. Talamieka Brice, 37, was invigorated by her resistance. “A lot of people wondered ‘what would I have done’ during the civil rights movement,’” she said. “It’s inspired us.”

During the opening ceremony, Trump-boycotting civil rights veterans gathered with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and national NAACP president Derrick Johnson at the Smith Robertson Museum, once a Jim Crow-era Jackson black public school. Scheduled keynote speaker John Lewis, Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, cancelled his opening-ceremony commitment as well. Lumumba said, “We don’t need Donald Trump to tell us what civil rights means in Mississippi.”

I asked the mayor when he’d go see the museum.

Actually, he said, maybe later that day. “As soon as the dust settles.”

Walls couldn’t contain the power of Mississippi’s civil-rights history, even long enough for the museum to get its doors open. But now, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is finally going about its business, telling the state’s wrenching and unfinished story.