Museum backers try to keep focus on Mississippi history; former Gov. Mabus to skip opening

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Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

The unveiling of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum has for years been a planned reconciliation, of sorts, for a state with a battered history of racial violence and hatred.

But the day now incites mixed feelings as Secret Service agents and speechwriters advance the museum grounds this week in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s visit.

Update: U.S. Reps. John Lewis and Bennie Thompson will not attend opening ceremonies.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Artist and Transformit founder Cindy Thompson shows the scale of the individual blades that make up the fabric sculpture “This Little Light of Mine” at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The museum’s concept, set to be unveiled on Saturday, the weekend of the state’s bicentennial, is to finally center truth in the teachings of the state’s past. The overdue justice has been the museum’s grand appeal, and taxpayer dollars funding the project – the only funding structure for a museum of its kind in America – has been its selling point.

Some Mississippi organizations who have devoted their efforts to the museum’s unveiling hope the world’s focus will remain on Mississippi’s history.

“We’re very excited about the opening of the two museums that will honor the history of those that have given their lives for the freedoms that we enjoy,” said Yolanda Clay-Moore, public relations manager of Visit Jackson. “I think that the opening is worthy of a presidential presence, but I pray that it does not overshadow what we’re truly trying to accomplish in these two museums.”

But others are dreading the day of which they’ve long dreamed.

“President Trump’s statements and policies regarding the protection and enforcement of civil rights have been abysmal, and his attendance is an affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement,” NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. “He has created a commission to reinforce voter suppression, refused to denounce white supremacists, and overall, has created a racially hostile climate in this nation.

Trump, who was invited personally by Gov. Phil Bryant, will share the stage Saturday with civil rights heroes Myrlie Evers-Williams and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Bryant, along with former Govs. William Winter and Haley Barbour, will also speak.

“Mississippi should be proud that the president of the United States has agreed to speak at the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum,” Bryant said on social media Wednesday. “The world will be watching our Bicentennial celebration. Let us come together as one Mississippi.”

Another former governor, Ray Mabus, who also served as secretary of the Navy under President Obama, said he had now decided not to attend.

“This institution and event should be a celebration of the hard-won progress in civil rights, but the main speaker, Donald Trump, is actively attacking that progress and turning us back to the dark days of hatred and division. An overt racist and a supporter of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Donald Trump represents the exact opposite of what this museum is about — honoring the heroes who fought for, and often died for, the idea of equality of all,” Mabus said.

The stage will be set on the plaza of the new museums in downtown Jackson, a city that is 80 percent black, dead centered in the state with the largest black population in the nation.

The museum openings were timed precisely to complement Mississippi’s Bicentennial Celebration on Dec. 10.

Chandler Griffin, co-founder of Blue Magnolia Films, contributed to The Mississippi Mile, a bicentennial celebration featuring an outdoor photo gallery of the most celebrated storytellers in Mississippi that will be on display this weekend.

“(The) strength of our project is rooted in bringing people together, not dividing,” Griffin said.

In either case, some contributors still consider the event as a shining moment in the state’s history.

“We’re looking forward to honoring all those that are featured in the museum, and we’re looking forward to people from around the world knowing the history of the state,” said Cynthia Goodloe-Palmer, executive director of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc. who helped organize the event’s entertainment.

But many couldn’t get past the news of the president’s visit.

Wednesday afternoon Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, chair of the Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus, released a statement.

“I will not be attending the grand opening of our Civil Rights Museum. I will await a time to visit the museum with my family without the president disrespecting the men and women who sacrificed their lives for the freedoms I am privileged to have today.”