Civil rights museum gala honors icons of the movement

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Ruby Bridges Hall, a Tylertown, Miss., native who faced threats and ostracism when she became the first black child to integrate a public school in New Orleans in 1960, listens as Gabriel Owens, 7, of Madison,  performs her role as a young Hall, prior to the Friends of Mississippi Civil Rights gala Friday. Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

A who’s who of Mississippi and black Democratic politics gathered to celebrate the opening of the state’s civil rights museum.

The sold out event, held at the Jackson Convention Complex on Friday, was billed as a gala to honor stars of the Southern civil rights struggle but was really a do-over of the grand opening held in December.

After the announcement that President Donald Trump would attend the bicentennial celebration and ribbon cutting of the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights, many black leaders opted to skip the event.

Later, a private group called Friends of Mississippi Civil Rights quietly organized an event and invited civil rights icons who boycotted the bicentennial opening. Even though there was scant mention of Trump or the Republican Party, the Friends of Civil Rights awards dinner felt like a rebuke of the president and Republican policies, including on hot-button issues that have dominated news cycles in recent weeks such as the mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Rep. John Lewis

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was arrested in Mississippi During the Freedom Rides — his famous mugshot is on display in the civil rights museum — said what he described as voter suppression efforts such requiring photo ID at the polls and partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts are reminiscent of policies he fought against in the 1960s.

“There are forces in America today that are trying to take us back to another time and to another place. We’ve come too far. We’ve made too much progress and we’re not going back. We’re going forward!,” he said to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the crowd that included legislators and local officials from across the state.  

Ruby Bridges Hall, a Tylertown native whose integration of a New Orleans elementary school when she was 6 was the subject of several iconic images, recalled going hunting with her grandmother who carried a shotgun and a pistol.

“She didn’t need an assault rifle,” to hunt, Bridges said.

The killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14 in which the gunman used an AR-15 assault-style rifle has refueled the national conversation about gun laws and touched off a movement led by high school age students calling for stricter gun laws.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Attorney General Jim Hood

General Jim Hood, a Democrat and self-described outdoorsman and hunter, did not echo Hall’s admonishment of assault weapons but said he is “encouraged by the young people who’ve stood up on Florida” and called on young people to become civically active.

Speakers also turned a critical eye toward Mississippi.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, called African Americans in the Legislature and in local government to demand banks have more blacks on their boards of directors and for greater minority participation in major economic development projects such as the Continental Tire factory now under construction near his hometown of Bolton.

U.S. House

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton

“I want you mayors and supervisors that put money in these banks to start asking the tough questions. If the clerk has the same power as the black vice president, then that’s called window dressing,” Thompson said. “Elected officials, we need your help. Now that you have the position, do something.”

The events will continue on Saturday, Feb. 24 with a symposium and several panels on civil rights, women’s economic security and millennial activism.

Former state Rep. Robert Clark and Rita Schwerner Bender were also honored. Bender was the wife of Michael Schwerner who was killed in Philadelphia along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney in 1964.