Group proposes Jackson as site for Mississippi civil rights museum

Published 6:17 pm Wednesday, December 20, 2006

In March 1961, nine black students from Tougaloo College were exposed to threats and violence for trying to integrate the whites-only Jackson public library system.

Theirs was among the first high-profile efforts to break down a stubborn, long-standing system of segregation in Mississippi. After that, local movements for racial equality gained momentum in McComb, Greenwood and other cities, says Jackson State University political science professor Leslie B. McLemore.

Because of Jackson’s prominence in the early days of the struggle to cast off segregation, McLemore says it’s appropriate that a proposed Mississippi civil rights museum be built in the capital city.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

A legislative study group has spent the last several months examining the feasibility of developing such a museum.

At the state Capitol Tuesday, the group released a list of recommendations, saying the museum should be built somewhere in Jackson and should be part of a “trail” to highlight historically significant civil rights sites around the state.

The group said the museum should be national in scope, focusing on how the Mississippi movement — primarily in the 1950s and ’60s — helped influence the civil rights struggle in other states.

The study group consisted of both black and white Mississippi lawmakers and the executive director of the state Department of Archives and History. A biracial group of historians and others served as advisers.

Democratic Sen. Hillman Frazier and Republican Rep. John Reeves, both of Jackson, served as co-chairmen of the committee.

“That struggle benefited not only black Americans, but white Americans as well,” said Reeves, who is white. “It brought about the notion that equality should apply to everyone, regardless of race, regardless of socio-economic status. And I think it improved all of our lives and continues to do so to this day.”

Frazier, who is black, said race relations have improved significantly in Mississippi.

“We’ve made progress and we’re going to showcase it to the world,” Frazier said.

Civil rights museums in Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., already attract tens of thousands of visitors a year.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, was the only study committee member who did not sign the group’s list of recommendations. He said Mississippi needs a civil rights museum, but he doesn’t think it necessarily needs to be in Jackson. Burton was the only person on the seven-member study group from outside the metro Jackson area.

The proposed museum is among the topics expected to be discussed during the 2007 legislative session, which starts Jan. 2.

Gov. Haley Barbour appointed his own group earlier this year to look at the feasibility of a civil rights museum. His budget proposal includes $500,000 for planning.

The legislative study group recommended the state issue $50 million in bonds to build and equip the museum and to acquire artifacts for it. The group also said private money should be sought.

McLemore serves on the Jackson City Council and directs the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy at Jackson State University. He acknowledged that some people might want to ignore Mississippi’s civil rights history.

“I think we have scholars in this state and scholars external to this state who have studied this history, who know this history and will share the unvarnished history in our state and with our own people,” McLemore said. “One of the great tragedies is that we in our state don’t know our own history. So the civil rights museum will help to educate all of us, especially our young people.”