Several weeks ago, I attended the opening activities for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The museum represents a long-overdue, state-supported chronicling of Mississippi’s civil rights history. The “Two Mississippi Museums” as they are called—one telling the story of Mississippi’s history from the time of its indigenous inhabitants until the present day, and the other telling the story of the state’s Black freedom struggle—are a monumental accomplishment, both for the state and the nation. As a native Jacksonian and a civil rights historian, I have longed for Mississippi to have a civil rights museum on par with those in Memphis and Birmingham. One that would chronicle my home state’s civil rights activism in a way that shows the world the depth and breadth of Mississippi history and honors the individuals whose activism was instrumental to opening what James W. Silver refers to as the “closed society.” The weekend was filled with intellectual enlightenment, fellowship, and celebration of this institution that raises the visibility of the Mississippi civil rights movement.
On the afternoon of Thursday, December 7, 2017, I had the honor of being on a panel with civil rights scholars Emilye Crosby and Françoise Hamlin and civil rights veteran and journalist Charlie Cobb. In the cozy rotund House of Representatives chamber of the Old Capitol Museum, renowned newscaster, Randall Pinkston (also a Mississippi native), moderated our discussion that covered as broad a range of Mississippi civil rights history as could be covered in ninety minutes as we discussed “How Mississippi Changed America.” The conditions that caused Mississippi to be the worst state in the Union regarding the mistreatment, exploitation, and oppression of Black people required that Black Mississippians become some of the most radical and visionary activists fighting against Black subjugation. Annie Devine, Clarie Collins Harvey, A.M.E. Logan, Vera Mae Pigee, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray Adams, Unita Blackwell, Winson Hudson, L. C. Dorsey, C. C. Bryant, Medgar Evers and countless others brought wisdom, strength, and courage to the local, national, and international Black liberation struggles that were cultivated from the need not only to survive but also to make sure that they, their families, and their communities thrived. When we learn about Mississippi civil rights activists and how the movement manifested in this state, we are learning about the lives and experiences of individuals who were key to transforming this nation. This panel and the discussion between W. Ralph Eubanks and Clayborne Carson that followed helped to contextualize the significance of celebrating Mississippi’s bicentennial with the opening of the Two Mississippi Museums.
In frigid temperatures on Friday evening, the night before the official opening, I and hundreds of other guests had our first visit to the museum. I carried with me the fears of many Black women who have refused to donate their papers to archives or to share their experiences with historians, due to uncertainty about how their lives would be represented, worried that once again our history might be distorted. The misgivings I had about whether or not the history would be properly recorded were almost immediately assuaged because the museum is magnificent. The eye-catching and interactive exhibits, the stunning “This Little Light of Mine” sculpture, and the wealth of information are beautifully displayed. As I toured the museum, I saw information that I knew well: the stories of activists I have interviewed and those I know personally, including my mother, Euvester Simpson. I also gained a new perspective on the Black experience in the state of my birth prior to the civil rights movement. My visit was brief and hardly sufficient to explore the vast collection. What I did see, however, was an excellent representation of Black humanity: the pain of Black oppression; the beauty of Black resistance, survival, strength, and love; and the hope of our ancestors that has undergirded the generations-long Black freedom struggle. To see the local, everyday people who sustained the movement, centered in the accounts of Mississippi civil rights, was nothing short of amazing.
This museum is an important part of the national civil rights narrative in that it relays the story of how Mississippians opened the “closed society” while helping to propel the rights of Black Americans to the forefront of the national political debate. The Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer activists, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party garnered the national spotlight as grassroots activists, who were local people and also on the front lines, sacrificed their livelihood, safety, and even their lives to push our nation toward its democratic ideas. This museum honors their lives and activism and contributes to a more complete accounting of the country’s civil rights history. It is important that this is understood as not only Mississippi’s history and legacy but America’s as well. I eagerly await the occasion to spend the time that is warranted to fully explore all the information that is contained within the museum.
The opening ceremony and final event occurred the following morning. I arrived at the event on the pavilion outside the museums shortly before Myrlie Evers-Wiliams’s remarks. I stayed away from the earlier portion of the program, as did many others, in protest of the President Donald J. Trump’s attendance. I was dismayed that someone who has constantly shown disdain for people of color would be invited and would attend. I viewed Trump’s attendance as nothing more than an attempt to satiate his incessant desire for attention and white folks playing politics with Black lives, yet again. But as Evers-Williams took the stage, her commanding presence reminded us why we were there. She overshadowed the discontent surrounding Trump’s presence and replaced his chicanery with elegance and strength, which reminded us of Black women’s grace and power, and the legacy and the lives we were there to honor. She stated that the museum values all Americans and “that if Mississippi can rise to the occasion then the rest of the country should be able to do the same thing.” Mississippi was and continues to be lambasted as the least progressive and most oppressive and poverty-ridden state in the nation. Therefore if we are taking the step forward, with the country’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum, then we have set the standard high for every other state to accurately memorialize this central aspect of our nation’s history, arguably the country’s most important social movement of the twentieth century.
There is much to be learned about and from Mississippi’s daughters and sons who challenged and defied the American doctrines of racism and segregation. When we tell the story of American civil rights from the perspective of the most dispossessed, we get a richer and fuller story: one that accurately reflects our nation’s racist past and centers the Black people who have guided us forward in creating a just society.
Just as the story of the Mississippi civil rights movement is not complete without the inclusion of the activism of people from the delta to the capital city to the coast, neither is the story of this nation’s civil rights history complete without the story of the Mississippi movement. A visit to the museum should be on the itinerary of every Mississippian, every student of the civil rights movement, and every individual who wants to know more about not just civil rights history or Mississippi history, but American history.