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President Donald Trump lauded the state’s civil rights activists Saturday after quickly touring two new Mississippi museums documenting the state’s history and its civil rights legacy as part of celebrations of the bicentennial of Mississippi’s statehood.
Trump spoke for some nine minutes to a private group of museum patrons, visitors and veterans of the civil rights movement just prior to the official opening ceremonies for the two museums. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the first state-supported museum on that topic in the nation.
In his remarks, at an event closed to the general public, Trump recounted the “tremendous service to our nation” of Mississippians who sought to achieve civil rights for all.
Citing the work of Medgar Evers, slain outside his home in Jackson in 1963, Trump noted that he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery among other American heroes.
“That is what he was, a hero,” Trump said.
The president also noted the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the successful effort by James Meredith to integrate the University of Mississippi and the sit-in at the Jackson Public Library by Tougaloo College students.
“Here we memorialize the brave men and women who struggled to sacrifice, and sacrifice so much, so that others might live in freedom,” Trump said.
The president saluted the state for building the museums, saying, “These museums are labors of love.”
“These buildings embody the hope that has lived in the hearts of every American for generations,” he said. “The hope for a future that is more just and is more free.”
“This (museum) is an incredible tribute not only to the state of Mississippi — a state that I love, where I’ve had great success — this is a tribute to the nation at the highest level,” the president said. “And I salute you.”
While some had been concerned about comments the president might make around the sensitive issue of race relations, Trump read mostly from a prepared script. He deviated from that script to acknowledge Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers, and his brother, Charles Evers, drawing applause from his audience.
State and local elected officials and personalities present and past were included in the gathering inside, which had a buzz of anticipation of the day’s events — and excitement over the appearance of celebrities such as Miss Mississippi Anne Elizabeth Buys of Vicksburg — as they waited for Trump’s arrival.
Outside the museums there were performances on the stage set for the opening ceremonies that followed, but the president’s remarks were not broadcast over the sound system. One observer noted that those outside — many adorned with yellow felt scarves that displayed the two museums logo — would never have known the president was there if they hadn’t known beforehand.
Trump later tweeted out his speech:
It was my great honor to celebrate the opening of two extraordinary museums-the Mississippi State History Museum & the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. We pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past & dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice & peace. pic.twitter.com/5AkgVpV8aa
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2017
Among those invited to hear Trump’s speech was Rep. Alyce Clarke of Jackson who said, “I felt the need to be here to honor the sacrifices made by a number of people featured in the museum and it was my responsibility to be here for them because they’re no longer with us.”
Clarke said she thought inviting Trump was unfortunate. Then she added: “But this museum isn’t about Trump. It’s about the many sacrifices we’ve made across this city, this state, this nation.”
Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman was enthused about the president’s visit: “The fact that the president came here is a significant economic benefit to us … The president put it on the map better than any marketing firm could have.”
“(His remarks) were great,” Hosemann added. “This is a moment in history when Mississippians need to come together to recognize a history and plan for our future.”
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn also praised Trump’s remarks on Mississippi’s civil rights history: “It was a good message that talked about our history and the need for recognizing the great sacrifices that people in our state have made. It was well-delivered and a good message.”
When asked about the Trump visit, Peyton Prospere, a Greenville native who lives and works in Jackson, remained quiet, wiped his eyes, and looked down for a moment before saying: “I hope that he may learn something from this from his time here. And I hope that he would take what lessons he may draw from his experience here and begin to incorporate them in his policies and actions and statements.”
Before Trump arrived close to 100 protesters gathered a few blocks from the museum, on High Street chanting “Dump Trump” and “No hate in our state.” They held numerous signs which read “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate never made anything great.”
Others expressed disappointment in the protests. Shelby Rayner, 24, says the protest is disrespectful. At the end of the day Trump is our president “and if you don’t like him, just stay at home,” Rayner said.
The presidential visit has garnered national headlines this week, most notably after key scheduled program participants — including U.S. Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and former Mississippi governor Ray Mabus — announced they would boycott the event, citing concerns over the president’s history with race.
Trump was personally invited to the opening earlier this year by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, a 2016 campaign surrogate of the president who describes himself as a “close friend.”
“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.”
“We are kinder and more tolerant here in Mississippi than I think perhaps other places,” Bryant said Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “Allow the president to come and honor Mississippi with his speech and his presence.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was more direct in responding to the boycotts: “We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.
“The president hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”
Several activist groups in Mississippi have planned protests. Thompson and Lumumba scheduled their own separate event five blocks northeast of the new museums at the Smith Robertson Museum, a civil rights history venue run by the city of Jackson.
In the buildup to the visit, National NAACP President Derrick Johnson called Trump’s visit “an affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement.” Johnson was president of the Mississippi NAACP before being elevated to his national post earlier this year.
In a statement announcing they would not attend, Lewis and Thompson said, “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum. The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi.”
“President Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place,” the statement said.
In his statement, Mabus said, “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.”
State museum officials tried to strike a middle stance.
“We look forward to celebrating the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Though we will miss some who may not be with us on Saturday, they will be remembered also as we honor the many people whose stories are told in our two museums,” said Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Trump landed at the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport mid-morning, and his motorcade took him straight to the museum. He toured the museum before speaking to the small group of patrons inside and departed the premises before the larger, public event begins outside.
The president’s time in Mississippi amounted to about 85 minutes, according to the White House pool report.
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 and more recent efforts towards healing those divisions.
But the day incited mixed feelings as Secret Service agents and speechwriters advance the museum grounds this week in anticipation of Trump’s visit.
The museum’s concept is to 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.
Trump attended a rally Friday night in Pensacola, Fla., where he urged voters in Alabama — just a few dozen miles from where he spoke — to vote for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in a special election next week. Trump, in his speech, discussed other hot button issues, including tax cuts that Congress is considering, the war on terror and the what he terms a “war on Christmas.”
Contributing: Kayleigh Skinner, Aallyah Wright, R.L. Nave, Sereena Henderson