State History, Civil Rights Museums Open

The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, interconnected museums that take visitors through the sweep of Mississippi history and the state’s role as ground zero in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, opened in Jackson on December 9, culminating the state Bicentennial Celebration.

After participating in the red ribbon cutting line in front of the museums, civil rights leader Myrlie Evers, former Gov. William Winter, and Gov. Phil Bryant led a group of children through the front doors as the first official visitors.

“Inside these walls will be exhibited Mississippi’s unique story, both the illustrious history and deep failure,” Gov. Bryant told the crowd that packed Entergy Plaza in front of the museum complex. “There is no question that Mississippi has had its portion of trials and tribulations, epic struggles that cannot be forgotten or excused, but also a rich history that should be celebrated and honored by all of us collectively.”

President Donald Trump toured the Civil Rights Museum at the invitation of Gov. Bryant. The President then spoke to a group of civil rights leaders, public officials and invited guests at a private event before the grand opening.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum includes the papers and artifacts of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the doors of the Bryant Grocery that 14-year-old Emmett Till walked through before his fateful encounter with the shopkeeper that led to his murder; a series of lighted columns that display the name of every known lynching victim in the state—more than 600 individuals; and a dramatic two-story “This Little Light of Mine” sculpture that celebrates the hope of the Civil Rights Movement in song and lights.

“We must learn from our history to understand ourselves,” Mrylie Evers, who was instrumental in the development of the Civil Rights Museum, told the crowd. “We must learn the stories of Native Americans, African Americans, women and children and all those who have been given a voice inside these museums.”

The Museum of Mississippi History’s theme—One Mississippi, Many Stories—runs throughout galleries that include a 500-year-old Native American dugout canoe discovered submerged in mud on the bank of a Mississippi lake, author Eudora Welty’s manual typewriter and a recreated Delta juke joint that hops to the sounds of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley.

Former Gov. Winter, a key official involved in the creation of the museums, said the exhibits represent “not one narrative, but all our stories woven together. The fascinating and complex, tragic and inspiring – all are captured here in these museums.”

Mississippi’s former history museum was closed after Hurricane Katrina ripped apart its roof in 2005. The two new museums expand the way the state’s history is presented, from prehistoric times to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Both museums use Mississippi’s rich tradition of storytelling to showcase the compelling lives of ordinary people who made extraordinary contributions to the state and the nation. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is the only state-operated civil rights museum in the nation.

The Mississippi Legislature provided $90 million for the museums. Another $19 million has been raised through private donations for exhibits and endowments. The two museums share a lobby, auditorium, classroom, collection storage, and exhibit workshop for a facility that covers a total of 200,000 square feet—the equivalent of three and a half football fields.

Private donors have created an endowment aimed at bringing every ninth-grade student in the state to visit the museums every year. At today’s opening, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation announced it would match the $1 million it has already contributed to the endowment.

“We envision future generations will be inspired by the authentic narratives in these extraordinary exhibits,” La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the foundation, said in the opening ceremonies.

“These museums have had the support of an extraordinary coalition of people, including five governors, legislators from across the political spectrum, corporations, foundations and hundreds of individuals from across Mississippi whose voices have contributed to the stories we are telling,” said Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which operates the two new museums.