Civil Rights Museum in Mississippi Arouses Hope—and Distrust

The museum was meant to heal wounds, but some ask whether the state can truly own its shameful past.

When Mississippi decided to build a civil rights museum in 2011, it was hailed as a watershed event for a state that was one of the most virulently racist and violent during the turbulent civil rights era.

Former Governor William Winter, a Democrat whose legacy is his work to heal racial divisiveness, says the museum, scheduled to open in 2017, will make an important statement to the nation.

"The fact that this is the only state in the nation committing taxpayer funds to build a civil rights museum, in a state that arguably had the worst record of any state in defending segregation, is a symbol of the progress that has been made," he says. "We needed to do something dramatic like this."

The state's financial commitment gives the project stability at a time when many museums are struggling to stay afloat. But it also means that some of the same institutions that suppressed Mississippi's black citizens, often violently, are now in charge of telling their story. Some wonder why an oppressor should be trusted to offer a complete account of what Winter calls Mississippi's "sordid past."

"I don't think distrust is too strong a word," says Robert Luckett, who teaches civil rights history at Jackson State University, the state's historically black college. "I run a special collections archive for the school. When I meet African Americans of a certain age and ask what they plan to do with their collections, they distrust us to this day, because we are a state institution. I am an employee of the state of Mississippi, and they distrust that."

Such sentiments complicate the task of filling the museum. In her search for artifacts, Cindy Gardner, director of collections at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, spends a lot of time in living rooms, drinking tea and eating cookies, listening to skeptics. She has traveled the state to spread the word about the kinds of mementos the museum would like to collect.

"I've been working with one family for over a year and a half," she says. "Any day now we're going to get their stuff. I call every couple of weeks to check in. A member of their family member was murdered, and the family is still not trusting."

Jacqueline Dace, the museum's project manager, says the museum will tell an honest story or she wouldn't have taken the job. She spent nearly 20 years as curator of African American history at museums in St. Louis and Chicago before joining the museum team in Jackson at the end of 2012.

"There's going to be no sugarcoating of it," she says. "I don't believe in sugarcoating."

Freedom Summer

As Mississippi marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer this week, aging veterans of the civil rights movement are gathering in Jackson for a five-day commemoration, beginning Wednesday. Speeches, workshops, concerts, and a film festival are planned to pay tribute to the 1964 voter-registration campaign that drew national attention to the struggle to end segregation as well as to inspire a new generation of young people to find their voices in the present-day effort to empower the disenfranchised.

Mississippi's role as one of the most ferocious defenders of segregation cannot be overstated, starting with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The 14-year-old boy, visiting from Chicago, was dragged from his bed, beaten, and shot in the head for whistling at a white woman. Till's body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, anchored by a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck. Photographs of the open-casket funeral, published by JET magazine, spread around the world and galvanized the civil rights movement.

As the movement gained momentum, Mississippi gained a reputation as the most oppressive of many oppressive states, says David Beito, a history professor at the University of Alabama. According to the Tuskegee Institute archives, 581 people were lynched in Mississippi between 1882 and 1968, the highest number in any state.

Medgar Evers, a disciplined leader, organized one of the first successful protests in Mississippi in the early 1950s, when he and his older brother, Charles, now 91, staged a boycott against gas stations that did not have restrooms for blacks.

"We started it when we came out of the Army after World War II," says Charles Evers, whose office at the Jackson radio station, WMPR, where he's general manager, is a mini-museum of the era. "We had fought the Germans, and we came home and couldn't sit in the front of the bus. We couldn't register to vote. We couldn't stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant."

Medgar Evers went on to become the NAACP's first field secretary in Mississippi. By 1963 he was dead, killed by a Klansman's bullet in his driveway on a warm night in June.

A year later, the summer of 1964, known as Freedom Summer, became the most violent since Reconstruction, according to John Dittmer, author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. The city of McComb, 79 miles (127 kilometers) south of Jackson, suffered a large number of church burnings and firebombings. The city of Natchez, which overlooks the Mississippi River about a hundred miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Jackson, became home to the Ku Klux Klan's largest local chapter.

Freedom Summer was the name given to a 10-week campaign to register black voters. At the time, about 5 percent of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote. In several counties in the delta, where blacks represented the majority of the population, not a single African American voter was registered, says Beito. Hundreds of volunteers, many of them northern college students, rode buses into the state—where white segregationists lay in wait for them.

On the second day of the campaign, three activists were murdered, sealing Mississippi's reputation for the next half century and helping to propel the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.

The trio had gone to investigate the burning of a black church in the town of Philadelphia, 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of Jackson. They were arrested for speeding and taken to the Neshoba County Jail. James Chaney, 21, was a local black activist. Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, were white, Jewish New Yorkers.

The three were released late that night to a waiting lynch mob. The attackers took them to a lonely country road, shot them, and buried their bodies in an earthen dam. It took a platoon of FBI agents 44 days to find their bodies. (During the search, agents also found the bodies of two black men who'd gone missing in May.)

The aftermath exposed more ugliness: Some Mississippi state troopers were members of the Klan. The state-run spy agency, the Sovereignty Commission, had passed on a description of the civil rights workers' station wagon—including its make, model, color, and license plate—to the sheriff's office before it arrived in town. (That long-held secret was divulged only after a 1989 lawsuit forced the state to unseal the commission's papers.)

The Whole Truth

Some whites are wary of putting Mississippi's ugliness on display for the world to see.

"That period was called 'the troubles,' which meant you didn't talk about it," says Dick Molpus, a Democrat and former secretary of state. "In the South it's perceived that if we don't talk about it, it didn't happen. That trait of not looking at what has damaged us has kept us from being who we can be in the future."

Molpus grew up in Philadelphia and was 14 years old the summer the three activists were murdered. In a talk last week at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, in the chamber where Mississippi legislators had voted to secede from the Union, Molpus said he wanted to address the consequences that ensue when citizens fail to step up in response to violence.

"What do you think people said after the three disappeared but before they were found?" he asked. "They said, 'They've gone up north.' 'They're hiding.' But there were a number of people, even us kids, who knew better. We knew they were dead. We heard who was involved in it. We knew their names."

At the groundbreaking for the civil rights museum last fall, State Representative Gregory Snowden, a Republican from Meridian, surprised the crowd by revealing that a now-dead cousin whom he'd never met was a member of the murder party.

"That story must be told here," Snowden said. "We should not pick and choose which parts of our story to tell and which parts to leave untold. Our history is indeed intimate, it is personal, it is family. The challenge for us today is to embrace it all, the good along with the bad."

Only in Mississippi

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will cover the period of 1945 to 1970 and be paired with the long-planned Museum of Mississippi History, which will tell a broader story about the state, including its Native American settlements, its pioneer days, the Civil War and Reconstruction, World War II, and the Great Migration of blacks from the South to industrial jobs in the rust belt.

Visitors will also be able to listen to native Mississippi musicians like Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers, Muddy Waters, and soprano Leontyne Price, who became one of the first African-Americans to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The museums—estimated to cost $80 million—are under construction in Jackson, on a hill that overlooks the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, where hundreds of civil rights activists arrested during the protests were detained in cattle pens. The two museums will bookend a shared entry hall and other public areas that designers intended as a symbol of unity, Dace says.

The civil rights museum almost didn't happen. Despite repeated proposals over the course of a decade, some saw it as an expensive luxury for a poor state.

Then, in one of those only-in-Mississippi moments, Haley Barbour, the Republican governor at the time, intervened. Barbour's presidential aspirations, announced in the fall of 2010, were fizzling, in part because he'd defended the White Citizens' Council, which had worked to block integration. In an interview with the Weekly Standard, he described the council in his hometown of Yazoo City as "an organization of town leaders." Of the civil rights battles playing out around him he said: "I just don't remember it being that bad."

To the surprise of many, Barbour announced in his January 2011 state-of-the-state speech that the state should fund the museum and that it should be built in time for Mississippi's 2017 bicentennial celebration. Barbour walked the Senate floor to ensure that no senator became weak-kneed before the vote to approve the first $20 million in bonds to begin construction. He prevailed, with six votes more than needed.

"That a conservative Republican governor championed the museum is ironic in and of itself," says State Senator John Horhn, a Jackson-area Democrat. "But it was his personal involvement at the last minute that did the trick."

The museum got another assist from Medgar Evers's widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose donation of her husband's papers to the state's Department of Archives and History, is seen as a significant vote of confidence and trust.

"There is a level of respect for Mrs. Evers here that cannot be matched," says Dace. "Once you have someone like her on board, it's definitely a plus. They trust her, and they can trust the institution that she trusts."

The family of Vernon Dahmer, who headed an NAACP chapter and died in the firebombing of his Hattiesburg house in 1966, has overcome doubts and loaned the museum parts of the truck in which his family escaped. Gardner and Dace say they've collected "rooms full of artifacts—including poll tax receipts, red tennis shoes and other clothing worn by activists, an FBI fingerprint kit, a partially burned cross, a Klan recruitment poster and two white Klan robes and hoods that were discovered by a local resident while cleaning out the attic of a home he'd bought. There are also plans for the museum to acquire, on loan, the doors to Bryant's Grocery, where Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant.

The civil rights museum's seven galleries will open into a circular room filled with light. The airy space is intended to counterbalance the grim stories told in the surrounding exhibits and stand as a symbol of reconciliation and hope.

A New Day

Over time, there has been some reckoning with the past. Byron De La Beckwith, the former Klansman who murdered Medgar Evers, was finally convicted in 1994, 30 years after two trials ended in deadlock. He died in prison in 2001. Former KKK "imperial wizard" Sam Bowers, who purportedly planned the firebombing of Dahmer's house, was convicted in 1998 of his murder. He died in prison in 2006. Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman who planned the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman in Neshoba County, was convicted of manslaughter in 2005 and sentenced to three consecutive 20-year terms.

Earlier this month, at a 50th-anniversary memorial for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, Philadelphia's first black mayor, James Young, welcomed a large gathering that included relatives of the three men and a roster of luminaries from the civil rights era, as well as citizens such as Dick Molpus.

"Welcome to a new day in Neshoba County," Young said. "You don't have to worry about somebody taking you off to jail."

Follow Laura Parker on Twitter.

Read This Next

What drives elephant poaching? It’s not greed
How old are you, really? The answer is written on your face.
The rise of vegan safaris

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet