Wednesday, December 6, 2017
It is fitting that the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will be in Jackson, often called "ground zero" of the Civil Rights Movement. From the Freedom Riders to the Woolworth sit-in, Jackson witnessed many pivotal moments during the movement. Pioneers and leaders like Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, James Meredith (the list is long) and many more are finally getting recognition they deserve.
In 1964, the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee organized "Freedom Summer," drawing volunteers to the state to register black Mississippians to vote. The state-sponsored Sovereignty Commission, which had formed a decade earlier in response to the historic Brown v. Board decision, actively spied on civil-rights organizers at the time. Commission members conspired against those seeking equal rights for African Americans in the state—both black and white, and even coordinated with the Ku Klux Klan to carry out more violent retaliation.
Less than 60 years later, instead of sponsoring white supremacy, terror and segregation, the Legislature opted to fund a civil-rights museum. Progress is possible—but is easily stunted by tone-deaf, not-so-subtle actions by state officials today.
Take Gov. Phil Bryant. The Citizens' Council school alum has publicly supported the two museums as governor, but he also invited President Donald Trump to crash the grand opening. Trump, whose election to the highest office in the country has emboldened the most blatant, forthright group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists since the Civil Rights Movement, could stand on the same stage as Myrlie Evers, who lost her husband at the hands of a white supremacist right here in Jackson.
Trump, who waffled and botched a "many sides" response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this year, could speak at the opening of a museum he arguably knows nothing about. Trump, who thought Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and writer in the 19th century, was alive today, could learn from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. He should stand in front of the towering, ghost-like KKK robes on display in the museum and study the burning cross replica, set on fire and put in yards by terrorists. But Trump should not speak at the opening of the museums.
If Trump is handed a microphone, he will undoubtedly fumble a trotted-out speech, embarrassing and infuriating Mississippians everywhere. He knows nothing of this state's history—and nothing of the South. Bryant, too, could learn a thing or 15 from the civil-rights museum. The last exhibit is called "Where Do We Go From Here?" because the Civil Rights Movement is far from over. Civil rights are still at the forefront of several policy protests and movements today from Black Lives Matter to changing the Mississippi state flag.
Bryant's decision to invite Trump to the state as it takes a step forward might well place him alongside Trump in history books as the faces of men who implicitly and explicitly endorsed bigotry from the policies they support to the events they attend.