— Sereena Henderson (@SereenaOnSocial) December 9, 2017
Myrlie Evers, whose husband Medgar Evers was assassinated in the driveway of their home in 1963, received a standing ovation at the opening ceremony for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History on Saturday in Jackson.
Medgar Evers was state field secretary of the NAACP, and Myrlie Evers continued the fight for civil rights after he was gunned down.
At the podium on Saturday, she reminisced about her first impression of the two museums, which she described as “separate but equal.”
But her attitude has changed since she toured the museums.
“I understand now … one is not complete without the other,” she said.
“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 that dwelled in the hearts of all those people and children and it transferred into hope and love we find in the other building. Where does ‘separate’ come from? A word. Both buildings share the same heart, share the same beat.”
Getting to opening day has been a Herculean task for people who conceived, nurtured and assembled the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History — weathering last-minute controversy and a surprising snowfall at the finish line.
But Saturday, with temperatures near the freezing mark, thousands arrived to dedicate the new museums in downtown Jackson — civil rights activists who never thought they would see such a day, elected officials, everyday citizens and the president of the United States.
President Donald Trump’s scheduled appearance, initiated by Gov. Phil Bryant, was the capstone for the saga of the museums’ opening. It was both applauded and condemned.
Trump arrived aboard Air Force One Saturday morning at Allen C. Thompson Field Air National Guard Base in Flowood and rode in a motorcade directly to the museums. Welcoming him were Bryant, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, Charles Evers, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. and Pascagoula Mayor Dane Maxwell, Trump’s Mississippi campaign director.
Trump toured the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and spoke to a private gathering of civil rights veterans, elected officials and museum patrons in the Two Museums Auditorium.
“These museums are labors of love,” Trump told the group. “This is a tribute to our nation at the highest level, and I salute you.”
The president also recognized the sacrifice of Medgar Evers.
“That is what he was, a hero,” Trump said.
Dr. Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, accompanied Trump to the museum.
No public remarks were planned.
The outdoor seating area in the plaza adjacent to the museums, with approximately 3,000 chairs, was more than halfway filled by 11:30 a.m. before the ceremonies kicked off. The Mississippi Girlchoir, Utica Jubilee Singers and Madison Central High Brass Quartet performed before speeches began.
Former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson welcomed the audience at the museums opening ceremony, which was the culmination of the state’s bicentennial celebration.
“I am proud of the stories that they celebrate and the experiences they share,” Anderson said. “These museums will be a place of civic discussion, learning and inspiration.”
Bryant told the crowd the museums will lead the state forward.
“From this anguish emerged a state with the most generous and hardworking people anywhere in the world,” he said. “This is indeed our bicentennial. Mississippi was once lost, now we are found; We were blind, now we see.”
Former Gov. William Winter also spoke: “These museums allow us to follow our state’s journey and inspire us to work harder to follow common dreams.”
“We must celebrate our differences, and we must embrace our common humanity, which binds us together.”
Days before Trump’s appearance, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, and former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus declared they would skip the ceremony. Lewis and Thompson called Trump’s visit “an insult to people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
Lewis, who was arrested in Jackson in 1961 with Freedom Riders protesting segregated bus travel and was an organizer of the Freedom Summer voter registration drive in Mississippi in 1964, was scheduled as a featured speaker at the opening ceremony.
After the ribbon cutting, the first members of the public entered the two museums. Six thousand tickets have been reserved for Saturday and Sunday.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves thanked families who donated pieces from the past to the museums so that Mississippians can be educated on the struggles and sacrifices made.
“Your actions allow us to tell our complete story,” Reeves said.
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn challenged Mississippians to go forth from the museums “with a spirit of renewed tolerance and understanding.”
Sen. Roger Wicker said the museums are an important step in understanding Mississippi’s proud and painful history. He said remembering Mississippi history is being mindful of things we wish did not happen and “acknowledging where we’ve been, what we’ve been through and what we have accomplished.”
“Let us concentrate on the future of Mississippi left to come,” Wicker said. “Let’s make this ceremony an opportunity to look ahead at next 200 years.”
Sue Barr, of Drew, considers the new museums “something special” for the state.
“I think that it’s very good that (President Trump) accepted the invitation and was willing to recognize the museums and the work that has been done,” Barr said. “Of course, I hate all of the controversy. I wish that we could all go forward and be one.
Anthony Collier, a Clarksdale native, says this day is important to him because he grew up during Freedom Summer, but he is disappointed in elected officials who are boycotting the event.
“This is not about honoring (President) Trump’” he said. “We don’t have to agree on everything, and for them not to come, I’m very disappointed. I wouldn’t let Trump stop me from doing anything.
“You can’t change the past. It’s time to start over and make Mississippi the best place it can be.”
Peyton Prospere, a Greenville native and Jackson resident, says the new museums “recognize what is one of the most extraordinary histories of any state in this country.”
“And I like the marriage of the Museum of Mississippi history with the Civil Rights Museum, and very much looking forward to hearing speakers who were in many cases participants in this history represented here.”
A few blocks from the museums plaza, protesters lined High Street chanting, “No hate in our state,” and holding signs that said, “Hate never made anything great.”
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focuses on ground zero of the African-American struggle for equal rights from 1945 to 1976.
It features 22,000 artifacts and re-created scenes such as the storefront of the Bryant Grocery that 14-year-old Emmett Till walked through before his encounter with a shopkeeper that led to his murder in the summer of 1955, as well as a classroom reproduction that shows the differences between schools for white students and those for African-American students during segregation.
The new center is the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country.
The Museum of Mississippi History examines life in Mississippi from 13,000 B.C. to the present day, starting with the First Peoples. The timeline also incorporates topics such as the clash between the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations and the early United States, the “Cotton Kingdom,” the first bottled Coca-Cola, the Great Depression’s impact on Mississippi and many others.
John Dittmer, professor emeritus of history at DePauw University, author and a nationally recognized authority on the civil rights movement, praised the Civil Rights Museum.
“I don’t know of any museum that hits racism so straightforwardly and so hard,” he said. “As you walk in you see the names of people that were lynched. This is not trying to cover anything up.”
After the fanfare, Reuben Anderson acknowledged that he has not toured the entire museum.
“I’d hate to say this but … I can’t go through it,” he said. “It’s difficult for me because it’s not history. I went through today with the president, and it’s unpleasant. I’ll get around to it with my grandchild. It’ll take a while.”
Contributing: Aallyah Wright, Kelsey Davis, Kayleigh Skinner, Sereena Henderson and Larrison Campbell