Years later, Miss. still lacks civil rights museum
Mississippi bred some of the worst violence of the civil rights era, yet nearly a half-century after a barrage of atrocities pricked the conscience of the nation, it’s one of the few civil rights battleground states with no museum to commemorate the era.
Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old black boy, was bludgeoned to death for “sassing” a white woman and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River in 1955. Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home by white sniper in 1963. And three young voter registration activists were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Such events forced the nation’s eyes on the upheaval in the segregated South, and were pivotal in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The absence of a state museum to acknowledge and commemorate these events leads some to question whether Mississippi is ready to embrace its role in history.
“It comes to a point that I don’t think Mississippi wants her history clearly told,” said state Sen. David Jordan, a black Democrat from Greenwood in Leflore County.
A strong push for a museum didn’t come until 2006, when state Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson, sponsored a resolution to create a museum study commission. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour took the reins on the project, which appeared to have his support.
A commission that Barbour appointed chose the private Tougaloo College in north Jackson as the museum site in 2008 and gave the project an estimated price tag of $73 million. Tougaloo was a hub of civil rights activity during the 1960s and ’70s.
Little else has happened to develop the museum. Organizers raised $470,000, but more than half was spent on consultants. Businessman John Palmer, acting treasurer for the planning commission, said $108,000 is left.
“It’s very frustrating when you’re visiting Memphis and Birmingham and they’re telling Mississippi’s history when we’re ground zero for civil rights,” Frazier said.
Supporters of a museum tout it as a tourism draw. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., drew 207,143 visitors between July 2008 and June 2009, and had an operating revenue of $4 million.
About 170,000 people visit the permanent exhibit and participate in the programs at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, said Lawrence J. Pijeaux, the Alabama museum’s president and CEO.
“It means we’re bringing people to the state and it puts revenue in the city and the state,” said Pijeaux.
Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, noted for his work to improve race relations in the state and a member of Barbour’s museum study commission, disagreed with the suggestion that Mississippi’s leaders aren’t truly interested in creating a museum.
“The problem has not been resistance to the concept of having a civil rights museum,” Winter said. “But I do think it’s important that those who are interested get together on where it would be located.”
He said the Tougaloo site drew criticism from those who wanted the museum in downtown Jackson.
Organizers have said fundraising dried up because of the recession. Frazier said Barbour was to appoint a board to move the project forward, but he never did.
The governor still supports the project, but “it’s going through a number of trials and tribulations,” said Barbour spokesman Dan Turner.
“There was a split on the committee in choosing the site. Not having that unity behind it helped it lose momentum, Turner said. “Charitable donations are down across the board. Raising money at this time is really difficult.”
While the museum project languished, Barbour and lawmakers approved $2.1 million to begin work on a trail of markers describing significant civil rights events. The move didn’t please everyone.
“If this is the alternative to the museum, that’s horrid. That’s shameful. You can’t store artifacts out in the street,” said Owen Brooks, an 82-year-old Boston native who came to Mississippi in 1965 and participated in literacy, community development and voting rights projects.
Now, even the trail project has hit a snag. It’s not clear who dropped the ball. State Bond Commission members said the projects weren’t presented for the summer agenda.
However, Hank Holmes, director of the state Department of Archives and History, said his agency was preparing to issue a call for grants to fund trail projects when he learned the projects wouldn’t be on the agenda.
“When we found that out we stopped working on it because there would be no money for grants,” Holmes said.
Holmes said a civil rights museum for Mississippi is years away.
“There’s no organization. There’s no governance. There’s no building plan. There’s no collection. All of that has to be put together before you can open,” Holmes said.
With a history rich with heroes, martyrs and perpetrators, the state seems a natural location for museum.
There were Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party members who challenged the seating of an all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. There were Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the help of a Neshoba County deputy sheriff in 1964. Four decades later, Edgar Ray Killen, a part-time preacher, was convicted of manslaughter in their deaths.
These and many other stories must be told, said Rep. Diane Peranich, a white Democrat from Pass Christian who authored the language for the civil rights trail.
“I was so frustrated because I don’t know whether it was by design or intent or accident, but there was no movement on the civil rights museum,” Peranich said. “I thought a trail, taking it to the location that it happened, certainly would be more true to the history.”
Jordan hopes the old Bryant Grocery & Meat Market in Leflore County, where Till supposedly whistled at a white woman, can be preserved once plans for the trail proceed. He said the dilapidated store draws dozens of tourists each year.
“It’s almost embarrassing to show what it is now,” Jordan said. “It does show a kind of degrading of the situation. It appears as though what happened here isn’t significant.”
Reuben Anderson, a former state Supreme Court justice who co-chaired Barbour’s museum commission, hopes next year’s national Freedom Riders reunion in Jackson will jump-start museum activity. The event will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the daring activists who challenged segregated interstate travel on buses.
“We anticipate we will take whatever assets are left over and whatever artifacts and hold them for the civil rights museum,” Anderson said.