The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum offers a truthful trip through a painful part of state history.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photos Courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum was a long time coming, with years of proposals stalled by legislative disagreements or stymied by arguments about where in the state such a museum should be located. Finally in 2011, former Gov. William Winter and former Justice Reuben Anderson proposed to Gov. Haley Barbour the creation of two museums under one roof.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Advisory Commission was established, and veterans of the fight for civil rights from all over the state were called upon to participate in listening sessions. One of those veterans was Pamela Junior, who is now director of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
“What the veterans were asked in meetings was what they wanted to see and hear in the Civil Rights Museum, what was important to them,” Junior said. “And the answers were the same — they wanted the museum to be truthful, to teach children and young people the truth.
“Now, some of those veterans won’t come in the museum, some of them have died, but many have been here and have been very positive in their thoughts regarding the museum.”
Ground was broken for the Two Mississippi Museums in 2013 on a parcel of land near the Department of Archives and History on North Street. The museums would share an entrance and lobby. They opened Dec. 9, 2017.
In the Civil Rights Museum’s first year, the numbers reported by the state’s tourism officials were better than good. Nearly a quarter of a million people had visited both museums. The visitors were from every state in the U.S. and from 35 countries.
Stephenie Morrisey, Deputy Director of Programs and Communication for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History recommends visitors make time to see the Museum of Mississippi History before the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
“It’s important to learn the history of the state before learning the history of the movement,” Morrisey said. “It helps people understand a little better.”
The Civil Rights Museum is home to eight interactive galleries filled with exhibits that take museumgoers from 1945 to 1976. Here is a peek inside the galleries:
— In the first gallery, “Mississippi Freedom Struggle,” you’ll get an overview of sorts, including an understanding of civil rights and human rights, which became the crux of the need for the Civil Rights Movement. Learn about slavery, those most affected and the fight to see it end.
— “Mississippi in Black & White” sees the end of the Civil War and beyond Reconstruction. Perhaps one of the most powerful reminders in this gallery is a series of monoliths that contain from top to bottom on both sides the names of known victims of lynching throughout Mississippi.
— “This Little Light of Mine” is often called the heart of the museum. If, perhaps, there’s a primary theme of the museum, it could easily be light. That might seem confusing, but once visitors reach the center gallery, it should become clearer. Visitors find themselves beneath a 37-foot, 6,000-LED-lit sculpture, hearing a single voice multiply into many — including those of veterans of the Civil Rights Movement — singing “This Little Light of Mine.” This atrium-like gallery offers a place of contemplation after the dark history revisited in each of the other seven galleries.
— “A Closed Society” covers the early years of the movement and includes stories of Black Mississippians who fought for their country in World War II, a classroom (and seven-minute film) that illustrates that “separate and equal” was certainly not equal and a film about the life and death of young Emmett Till.
— “A Tremor in the Iceberg” illustrates the early 1960s and includes the assassination of Medgar Evers.
— In 1963 and ’64, young people from all over the country came to Mississippi to help Black people register to vote. In “I Question America,” visitors will see a 15-minute film about Freedom Summer and another film about the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Neshoba County.
— The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the March Against Fear are covered in “Black Empowerment.”
— And before ending the uncomfortable journey through the Civil Rights Museum, “Where Do We Go From Here?” offers time for personal reflection, an opportunity for visitors to share comments and thoughts on how each will continue to shine a light to keep the fight for equality moving in the right direction.
The museum offers free special events through the year, thanks to sponsors, including in January to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Every Sunday, admission is also free at the museum.
IF YOU GO
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
222 North Street, Jackson
Hours: 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Adult $15; Youth (ages 4 to 22) $8; Senior (60 and older) $13