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In May 1961, U.S. Rep. John Lewis was arrested in Jackson for his work as a Freedom Rider. This week he returned once more to tour the recently-opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum where his own mugshot is part of an exhibit, and said the experience brought him to tears.
“To walk through the museum and see Medgar (Evers), to see Fannie Lou Hamer and others that I’ve spent time with, the way people suffered…people took us into their homes, into their churches, they believed,” the Georgia congressman told a crowded room during a discussion Saturday morning. “So thank you.”
U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson and Cedric Richmond, D-La., Mississippi Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker joined Lewis for a panel discussion to celebrate the museum. Organized by a private group called Friends of Mississippi Civil Rights, the celebration kicked off Friday night with a gala where Lewis and other leaders of the movement were honored for their work.
Many black politicians and civil rights veterans boycotted the official grand opening in December after Gov. Phil Bryant invited President Donald Trump to attend. Although no one addressed the president by name, many speakers on Saturday voiced their displeasure with the new administration.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the museum “is not an opportunity for him (Trump) to leverage our sacrifice and our history” for political gain.
In a democracy, citizens’ votes are their currency, he said, and people need to use their votes wisely to affect change.
“These are the most critical times in the history of this country, because if we don’t leverage it properly, America will be Mississippi in 1960,” Johnson said.
Richmond acknowledged that progress has been made, but said “This administration is ignorant of the struggle and ignorant of the progress” of African Americans.
Williams-Barnes used her time at the podium to speak up for women.
The Gulfport Democrat has actively pushed for equal pay bills and the removal of the state flag in recent years. At the event, she reminded the crowd that the women of the civil rights movement often did not receive the credit they deserve.
“Efforts to lead the movement were often overshadowed by men, who still get more attention and credit for its success in popular historical narratives…,” she said.
Williams-Barnes and other speakers warned the crowd that progress since the Civil Rights movement does not mean one should become complacent. People must stay focused on creating a better future, she said.
“We must not allow elected officials, from the local level all the way up to the White House disrespect, ignore, or take for granted our power,” she said. And men, “Don’t you think that you have the God-given power to make decisions about our health, about our bodies, and about our employment.”
During the discussion, both the featured speakers and audience members clasped hands to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and clapped together during “This Little Light of Mine,” the song famously featured and a key part of the center display of the civil rights museum.
Booker gave an impassioned speech urging the audience not just to tolerate each other, but to love each other. He reminded them that Saturday’s event was organized to honor the heroes who fought, struggled and sweat for future generations, Booker said.
“History should not just be something that is reflected upon or contemplated over, it should ignite something in you,” he said. “It should demand from you a commitment.”
Lewis told the crowd his commitment is not over yet either.
“As long as I have breath in my body I will speak up, speak out, and I will find a way to get in the way and get in trouble,” Lewis said. “Good trouble, necessary trouble.”