PRINT Summer 2018



View of “Black Empowerment,” 2017–, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson. Photo: Tom Beck.

“I WANT EVERYONE in Congress to visit here,” John Lewis told the audience gathered on a mild Saturday in February to celebrate the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum—the new institution in Jackson that tells, in considerable detail, the history of racial oppression and resistance in this state, a bedrock of the freedom struggle.

Two months earlier, the museum’s official inauguration had come under a pall when Donald Trump decided to show up, having been invited by Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant. Lewis, the beloved civil rights hero and congressman from Georgia, had refused to attend in protest, as did other invitees, including Representative Bennie Thompson. But now they were here, communing with a lively crowd that included elders, church groups, high school students, and a Junior ROTC company, in what many felt to be, in spirit, the museum’s real opening.

The dual events were not the only apparent contradiction at play. Mississippi has opened two museums at once: the MCRM and the Museum of Mississippi History. One is immersive, critical, and dedicated to a compact, incandescent period; the other, more conventional and laudatory, presents a fifteen-thousand-year chronicle from the end of the Ice Age to now. Branded the “Two Mississippi Museums,” the institutions are physically distinct—the split perhaps inevitably carrying an echo of “separate but equal”—but they share ticketing, facilities, a joint catalogue, a soaring glass entrance atrium, and a broad, inviting public plaza that offers an elegant pedestrian passage to downtown Jackson, home to the state capitol and the governor’s mansion.

But the truly fascinating paradox has to do with Mississippi itself. In the current political moment, narratives of race in America are at once bitterly divided and, arguably, going through a crucial reckoning. Thus: powerful new acknowledgments, such as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for the victims of lynching that the Equal Justice Initiative recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Thus, also: the angry denialism that animates the “heritage, not hate” defenses of memorials to the Confederacy and its leaders. Mississippi still features on its flag the Confederate battle emblem, and marks the last Monday in April as “Confederate Memorial Day.” Yet it is also the only state to have built a government-sponsored civil rights museum—one that presents the struggle for Black survival and dignity in Mississippi with bracing frankness.

Mississippi is the only state to have built a government-sponsored civil rights museum—one that presents the struggle for Black survival and dignity with bracing frankness.

That certainly wasn’t the expectation of the veterans of the movement, who recall not only the daily tribulations of the civil rights era but all the dismissals and erasures that followed. “They did not believe—some still don’t believe—that it’s the true history,” MCRM director Pamela Junior told me, referring to activists’ doubts that a state-funded institution would tell their story truthfully. “I had one lady take me into a corner: ‘So you’re working at that place. You know it’s a lie.’ I said, ‘No ma’am, it’s not. We’ve done all the research.’”

View of “A Closed Society,” 2017–, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson.

The MCRM begins with Reconstruction, then focuses in depth on the period from World War II to the 1970s, which is examined across eight galleries that surround a skylighted rotunda. Each proposes a theme: “A Closed Society,” for instance, addresses, through photos and poignant oral-history recordings, school segregation and the persistent discrimination that Black veterans encountered after returning from the war. “A Tremor in the Iceberg,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by activist Bob Moses, describes the time between the early Freedom Rides—evoked in hundreds of police mug shots in an extraordinary testament to collective resistance—and the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963. (Congressman Lewis was a Freedom Rider, arrested for entering a whites-only restroom, and held for thirty-seven days in the Parchman Farm penitentiary.) “I Question America” covers a brief but intense time of organizing, from Fannie Lou Hamer leading a dissident delegation of Black Mississippians to the Democratic National Convention to the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by Klansmen on a June night in 1964 in Neshoba County.

All the rooms—which mix texts, photographs, artifacts, and interactive experiences in busy, floor-to-ceiling installations that sometimes edge toward cacophony—reveal the layers of narratives neglected in broad-brush histories of the movement. Restored to the record here is the Jackson State shooting of 1970 during which police killed two young people on the campus of the historically Black university; the event, which took place just ten days after Kent State, is often overlooked. Local organizers, crucial to the struggle yet often lumped together as anonymous “foot soldiers,” speak for themselves in displays that also focus on specific regions of the state, such as the Delta or the Gulf Coast, each of which has its own history of struggle.

The MCRM lets no one off the hook. It employs without apology such terms as white supremacy and mass incarceration—erstwhile flash points in the national culture wars—because they accurately describe the American system’s repressive logic. Entering each of the galleries, visitors pass pillars on which are inscribed hundreds of names of people lynched in Mississippi from 1900 onward. Nearby, discreetly behind a partition, runs a slide show of photographs of such killings, with captions that state raw facts: for instance, that four hundred white people looked on as L. Q. Ivy was beaten, tortured, and burned at the stake on September 20, 1925, in Rocky Ford.

This implication of the white viewer is not confined to the violence of the distant past. In a remarkable display, visitors can use a touch screen to browse through files of the State Sovereignty Commission, the spy agency that infiltrated civil rights groups and kept files on eighty-seven thousand citizens, an engine of propaganda and intimidation that was only disbanded in 1977. In the section on Emmett Till, a three-channel video narrated by Oprah Winfrey relates the story of his murder, including the fact that Carolyn Bryant, Till’s accuser, recently recanted much of her story.

Model of the Republic of New Afrika Headquarters, ca. 1971. From “Black Empowerment,” 2017–, Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson. Photos: Tom Beck.

As the crowd moved from the auditorium into the galleries after Lewis’s speech that Saturday, it became clear that the museum had no choice but to tell the truth. The elders who had been skeptical of the project became like an army of fact-checkers, equipped with intimate knowledge that they were only too pleased to share. I watched as they took positions near items of interest and buttonholed people who approached, the conversations quickly growing familiar, full of talk of home counties, family names, inquiries as to the health of past acquaintances.

I was inspecting a scale model of the Republic of New Afrika Headquarters, the site of a raid by state and federal agents in 1971 in which one officer was killed. The RNA, which formed in Detroit but moved to Jackson, advocated that the Deep South secede as a sovereign Black nation.

A man approached. “Say, do they mention who owned the house?”

I checked the caption. “No sir, they don’t.” He told me his name was James Reid, and that he was a county election official. The house had belonged to his family. They lived in Hattiesburg, but had bought the property in Jackson and rented it out. They had no idea that the RNA had moved in, until they got a call that the FBI had shot up the place. When Mr. Reid and his brother arrived on the scene, they found shattered windows, bullet holes, and tunnels the RNA had dug under the basement. If the raid has been a loose thread in the great quilt of national history, here it felt like connective tissue. In sharing his personal knowledge of this local history, Reid somehow also made it my own.

The museum has become a statewide pedagogical destination beyond what its organizers anticipated. On my second visit, on a Tuesday, high school students from Holmes County in the Delta, an hour from Jackson, were touring the galleries. Outside, more young people waited in line to enter. It struck me that the external architecture of the museum conveys from the outset the dignity and gravity of its subject. The building’s lead designer, the architect Philip Freelon, also partnered with David Adjaye and J. Max Bond Jr. on the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. In Jackson, he has split the museum facade into irregular but graceful panels with sharply angled lines; terra-cotta masonry soothes the tense geometry, serving as a gentle metaphor for conflict addressed but not erased. The plaza, too, is an investment in the kind of formal civic space that has become rare in America, especially in poor states.

Reconciliation is serious work. The MCRM did not materialize out of nowhere; it reflects decades of efforts by activists and civic groups that have taken place in the underbrush across the Deep South. Other parts of the country, where structural racism is more easily downplayed or denied, can learn from this work. “The ills of Mississippi are finally on the walls,” Junior told me. “The bandages are off. The truth is being told, so now we can’t go anywhere else but up.”

Siddhartha Mitter writes on art, culture, and politics, and is a regular contributor to the Village Voice.