ANGER, SHAME, AND HOPE: My Trip to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

December 29, 2017 at 8:35 pm

Mississippi: My home state. It’s where I spent the first three decades of my life. Contrary to common belief, it’s chock full of intelligent, worldly, thoughtful people. Of all the states in which I’ve lived—New York, Florida, and now California—The ‘Sip has some of the most talented, open-minded, and caring folks of any of them.

But also Mississippi: according to a list from “U.S. News & World Report,” out of the 50 U.S. states it ranks 45th in education, 45th in governmental capability, and 50th in average household income. Its percentage of citizens who finish high school is the lowest in the nation. It also has the lowest life expectancy of any state.

And Mississippi: it’s where over 500 black people were lynched in the 20th century alone. It’s where, in 1955, a black teenage boy was beaten, dismembered, and shot in the head for flirting with a white woman—and despite overwhelming evidence of the crime, the assailants were acquitted by an all-white jury of the black boy’s “peers.”

And 60 years later, the nephew of one of the perpetrators of that horrible act is the fucking Mississippi governor.

Excuse the language, but that fact just infuriates me. And that simmering anger nearly boiled over last week when my wife and I, during our holiday trip to my native state, visited the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The museum is beautiful and informative—and somehow it’s simultaneously hideous and hopeful. Despite hopes to the contrary, I left there even angrier than when I arrived. But I also left with a great sense of hope that someday, all American people will finally be judged by the content of their character, as MLK hoped too long ago. It hasn’t happened yet, but I believe it will—but there’s still much, much work to be done.

Kari and I arrived at the museum not long after it opened, and it wasn’t very crowded—and good thing we got there when we did, because as we left the entrance line was out the door. The museum itself was sort of a timeline of Mississippi discrimination, starting with facts, figures, and artifacts of early African slave trade, and ending with info about modern civil rights movements and their effect on American society. A way cool feature was in the last room of the circular museum layout: there were several kiosks where visitors could enter their personal thoughts about what civil rights means to them—then selected entries are displayed on a large screen encircling the room.

Some highlights of the museum displays: running most of the length of the museum floor were two-sided banners listing every known person lynched in Mississippi from 1882 until the present. There were presentations on black Civil War regiments, the struggles during Reconstruction, the turmoil of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Black Power movement. Each was well-planned, enlightening…and very sad.

Without question, the saddest of all to me was the display about Emmett Till, the aforementioned black teen murdered in ’55 by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white men; that incident is pretty much considered the birth of the Civil Rights Movement itself. (And Roy Bryant is the uncle of current Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who…more on that in a minute.) The Till display included a short film narrated by Oprah Winfrey (herself a Mississippi native) that explained how, a few days after Till supposedly whistled at Bryant’s wife outside his shop in Money, Miss., Bryant and Milam dragged Till from his home and took him to the banks of a nearby river. There they beat him mercilessly, gouged his eye, shot him in the head, then threw him in the river. When his body was dragged out of the river three days later, Till’s face had been beaten so badly that his uncle was only able to identify him by a family heirloom ring he wore. And despite Bryant and Milam being positively identified as the men who took Till from his home, the all-white jury took less than an hour to return a “Not Guilty” verdict. Their reason? Till’s uncle hadn’t been able to recognize his face. You know, because it had been beaten so much.

I’ll admit that I knew little about the Emmett Till incident. I cried, and I involuntarily emitted an audible “Fuck you” when Bryant and Milam’s photos were displayed at the end of the film. “You right,” another viewer responded softly.

As Kari and I were leaving, I didn’t post a comment in that electronic guestbook; I was too angry to do so. But then the last thing I saw before we exited the building was a giant quote on the wall from famed black Mississippi philanthropist Oseola McCarty: “If you want to be proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of.” And that made tears spring to my eyes again. It gave me hope. I have faith in humanity—that hopefully, each of us can take personal responsibility for what we do. And listen, I know the healing of race relations in America is about a lot more than individual accountability…but it starts with each person, doesn’t it?

So yeah, that’s a good segue to Soapbox Time. What did I learn from my museum visit? (Or more appropriately, what have I realized?) Among other things, it’s that we still have plenty of work to do regarding race relations in this country. The conversations are being had—see the photo to the right of another meaningful quote on the wall of the museum—but in my opinion, far too little corresponding action is being taken.

Take the Mississippi governor, for example. Phil Bryant’s ineffectiveness aside, the fact that anyone even remotely associated with (much less related to!) a man who committed such a horrible crime is selected by a majority of voters to lead an entire state is…just gross. Shame on you, Mississippi. (Or rather, shame on the people who voted for a racist murderer’s nephew.)

And of course, it’s my understanding that Gov. Bryant eagerly invited Donald Trump, the award winner for Man Least Qualified to Speak at the Opening of a Civil Rights Museum, to speak at the museum’s public opening ceremony. (Reminder: Trump once said, “I have a great relationship with the blacks.” Remember that?) After overwhelming outrage, the Racist-in-Chief agreed to speak at a “private” ceremony in a Jackson auditorium—which was attended by NINETY PERCENT WHITE PEOPLE. The irony is mind-boggling.

In other news, people are outraged at the removal of statues of men like Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first Grand Wizard of the KKK) and Confederate General Robert E. Lee from public property. “Wait, that’s part of history!” people cry. Sure it is. But why would you want to celebrate it? “Well, maybe we can learn from that history, so we don’t repeat it.” Bullshit. The men those statues represent were racist, and so are you. You want to keep those statues up to keep racism alive. Fuck you for feeling that way.

Change—epic, grand change in the way people feel about people of color—has to come. It hasn’t yet. Maybe—maybe—the opening of museums like the one my wife and I went to are a bit of a start. But until all people in this country believe that humans are humans—without “white,” “black,” “Native American,” “disabled,” or “transgender” labels, among many others—I’m afraid not much is going to change at all.

I think attending the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum should be a requirement for every single citizen of the United States. Maybe that way everybody can realize the horrible way minorities have been treated in the past…and they can also realize how much work still needs to be done.