Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, May 22, 2020

Mississippi owns dark past with civil rights museum

With Nashville recently marking the 60th anniversary of the successful sit-in campaigns that integrated downtown businesses, permit me to deliver a civil rights pat on the back to my native Mississippi.

I know. Shocking.

My relationship with my home state is decidedly ambivalent. That’s not unusual, I think, for a lot of Mississippians, or Southerners in general. We’re justifiably proud of our state’s contributions to the arts world, especially music and literature. We celebrate its slower pace of life, its down-home food, its reverence for friends and family.

At the same time, we’re embarrassed by the racist attitudes and practices from the past that all too often linger today. I need point no further than the Mississippi state flag, the last one in the country to still feature an instantly recognized symbol of the Confederacy, the battle flag.

Popular bumper stickers used to proclaim Mississippi as “The Most Lied About State in the Union,” a defensive protest that denied reality: People were in fact telling the truth about Mississippi, and the truth was ugly.

Mississippi has much to atone for.

But here’s where my story turns. On Dec. 10, 2017, the 200th anniversary of Mississippi’s entering the union, a new museum opened in Jackson, the capital: The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

It’s within sight of the Old Capitol, where in 1861 legislators voted to secede, declaring their allegiance not to the United States but to “the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.”

The museum pulls no punches. Gone are the days – at least within its walls – when many white Mississippians did their damnedest to ignore, and defy, the changing tide of history.

There are eight galleries filled with exhibits that recount the long, slow, painful struggle to afford blacks an equal share in the American dream. We’re not entirely there yet, of course, but the journey is long when the starting point is a people enslaved.

Among the most arresting exhibits for me was one with five panels listing the known victims of lynchings over the years, hundreds in all. In addition to the names of those killed the panels include their supposed transgressions: “Race Hatred” is one. “Race Prejudice” is another.

Seems a pretty clear example of the killers projecting their own sins onto their victims.

Much of what the museum presents was familiar to me. But a fair amount was new.

The Tougaloo Nine, for instance, students from a local historically black college who in 1961 had the audacity to enter Jackson’s segregated main library to do research for a class assignment.

They were arrested, charged and convicted of a breach of the peace. Unheard of, nowadays. But common not so long ago.

Mostly what was new, and entirely gratifying, was the notion that Mississippi could face up to its sordid past and create what is in effect a public apology, state sponsored and state funded.

And there’s more to applaud: I call your attention also to a relatively new book, “Race Against Time,” by Jerry Mitchell. It’s an account of the efforts to deliver belated justice for killings in four outrageous cases from the 1960s, three of them in Mississippi:

The murder of the NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963

The church-bombing deaths of four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama, also in 1963

The murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964

The house-firebombing and death of an NAACP official in Hattiesburg in 1966

Driven largely by Jerry’s dogged reporting on the cases, prosecutors in Mississippi and Alabama were able finally to secure major convictions in each of the cases, most notably of the unrepentant racist Byron de la Beckwith in the murder of Evers.

Full disclosure: Jerry was a colleague at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. But most of his reporting on the civil rights cases took place after I left Mississippi in 1990. I have merely been an admirer from afar since that time.

The Civil Rights Museum is closed for now by the coronavirus. But it will reopen, and it’s well worth the visit. Drive down the Natchez Trace for a double treat.

Meanwhile, Jerry’s book is widely available.

Taken together, they’re two rays of welcome sunshine for a state that has had a lot of dark days.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.