Dreams of civil rights veterans realized in museum

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Civil-rights movement veterans say they understood the historic nature of their activism might one day be the subject of museum — they just didn’t know when or where.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Jerelean Funchess registered black voters and was arrested for protesting the city jail in Jackson. She hopes young people go to the museum and learn about the movement.

Jerelean Funchess helped register black voters in Jackson and was arrested outside the city jail for protesting the abuse of civil-rights activists, hundreds of whom were arrested and detained at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, which the state’s new Civil Rights and History museums now overlook.

Despite the state’s role in those arrests, Funchess said she imagined a day when those activists would be recognized.

“I had faith that we would have a civil-rights museum, but I had no idea that it would be joined with the Mississippi history museum,” she said as she stood in line to enter the building.

“I think this is going to be extremely important for our youth, our students growing up, to give them some knowledge and wisdom of the truth of what happened in the ’60s and hopefully give them some hope towards a better future,” Funchess said.

George Smith said he became a guinea pig at the request of Medgar Evers, who asked Smith to attempt to register to vote. From there, he began attending mass meetings and working with his brother, pioneering physician Dr. Robert Smith, on health-care access for African Americans. 

“I didn’t do a lot of marching but I did a lot of supporting so I’m just happy to see the museum here and be a catalyst for it,” said Smith, a retired Hinds County supervisor.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Hollis Watkins, an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, said he frequently talked to museum organizers to make sure the exhibits were top quality.

Hollis Watkins, a former organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who worked with Vernon Dahmer and Bob Moses, also believed there would one day be a museum. Watkins initially preferred the museum to be located at Tougaloo College, his alma mater and a training ground during Freedom Summer.

“Looking at the photographs, mementos and the material as a whole I felt a fairly decent job had been done and could live with the road we were traveling so long as we didn’t get off that road,” Watkins said, adding that he wants to keep working with the museum to include more movement veterans.

Charlie Butts was a different kind of civil rights movement veteran. Butts was an editor and publisher of the Mississippi Free Press, which inspired the name of a local weekly newspaper in Jackson.

R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

Charlie Butts (right), pictured here with his wife Alice, was the editor and publisher of the Mississippi Free Press, which Medgar Evers helped start. Butts said the presence of journalists helped provide some protection of activists during the 1960s.

The Free Press, which Medgar Evers helped start, stood in stark contrast to the Jackson Daily News and Clarion-Ledger, both of which supported the white Citizens Council. Butts, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, said the presence of journalists helped protect activists. 

“The thing about Medgar that people don’t remember is that he was here in the ’50s when he was almost by himself. There was no national press,” Butts said about Evers’ courage. “That (the presence of media) gave us some protection, but he had none. He was really alone.”

Scenes from the opening of Two Mississippi Museums