Four years after it broke ground and nearly two decades after civil rights veterans began pushing for its establishment, the country’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum will open Saturday in Mississippi at a cost of more than $90 million.
But for all the work that went into it and a companion state history museum here in the state capital, a growing number of the civil rights pioneers and modern-day activists it’s supposed to honor are boycotting its kickoff event.
Blame a planned visit from President Trump.
“Trump has pompously shown a wanton disregard for the continuing struggles for civil, human and women’s rights,” and his presence is an “intolerable contradiction,” said Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the city’s black mayor, who on Friday joined the list of those planning to boycott Saturday’s opening ceremony.
The museum’s collection features thousands of artifacts from the state’s history between 1945 and the 1970s, including the Money, Miss., grocery store door that 14-year-old Emmett Till walked out of in 1955, before being tracked down, accused of flirting with a white woman and lynched; the rifle used to shoot civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963; and burned crosses used in Klansmen attacks on black activists.
The names of those killed in more than 600 documented lynchings are spread throughout the galleries.
The launch of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History — a connected series of exhibits spanning 15,000 years of local history — had attracted civil rights luminaries and their families from across the country before the White House said this week that Trump would speak.
In a matter of days, support has collapsed among key African American leaders.
Saying Trump’s record on civil rights is “abysmal,” the president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has called for the president to skip the event.
Rep. John Lewis, a prominent Georgia Democrat who helped organize the 1964 Freedom Summer voting drives in Mississippi, said he would not show up unless Trump bowed out.
More absences: former Gov. Ray Mabus and Rep. Bennie Thompson, both Mississippi Democrats, and several state politicians, including the Democratic chair of the Mississippi Black Caucus.
Outside the museum in downtown Jackson, demonstrators plan to rally as Trump’s motorcade passes and turn their backs or kneel during the ribbon-cutting in symbolic protest.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called planned protests against Trump “very sad,” and said the “president hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”
Museum officials fear the controversy over Trump’s visit at the invitation of Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will overshadow an event that was supposed to be a point of pride for a state where activists say stark racial disparities in income, incarceration and education speak loudly to the struggles that have continued since the civil rights movement. The majority-black city resides in the last state to feature a Confederate emblem on its flag.
Trump has “turned a celebration into a slap in the face,” said Laurie Bertram Roberts, a 39-year-old Jackson resident who will lead protesters she expects to swell to hundreds.
She named a litany of remarks and policies from the president that she called racist, including his repeated insistence that marchers at a deadly Charlottesville, Va., rally that featured white supremacists over the summer included “some very fine people.”
Others on her list: Trump’s invectives against NFL players who protest racism by kneeling during the national anthem; his jabs referring to Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as “Pocahontas”; his statements against Black Lives Matter; and his travel ban that courts have found targets Muslims.
Like many opposed to Trump’s visit, Roberts, who is black, said she was excited about the museum and wanted it to thrive.
“Nobody is calling for people to go into the museum and protest. That would be disrespectful and weird. We've called for people to either turn their backs when Trump speaks or, if they want, to take a knee,” said Roberts, who runs the the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund.
She and others could find it hard to determine the right timing for that. Museum officials expected Trump to take part in an outdoor ceremony in front of thousands of attendees that will include speeches from Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour. But the latest White House plans have the president speaking inside an auditorium to a private audience that includes civil rights veterans after a short tour of the museum — an apparent concession to the controversy.
Not everyone is protesting the president’s presence, including those who disagree with his policies. Activist Myrlie Evers, whose husband’s 1963 murder by a white supremacist is part of the exhibits, is scheduled to speak Saturday. Evers said she was considering addressing Trump’s visit. Reuben Anderson, who became the state’s first black Supreme Court justice in 1985, will introduce several speakers as the master of ceremonies.
Dennis Dahmer, whose father, Vernon, founded the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP in Hattiesburg, Miss., and died after the Klan shot and firebombed his home in 1966, said Trump’s visit split his family.
“I will be in attendance, along with my mother, sister and some of my nieces and nephews. We had hoped to have a much larger delegation but not anymore,” said Dahmer, 64. He said about 10 of 20 family members were boycotting.
“Some of my family members just consider it a farce for Trump to be coming. People who express the same views as this president on minorities were the very people who opposed my father in the ’50s and ’60s. If you put on a blindfold and listen to some of our president’s statements and listen to politicians of that era, I think you’d have a hard time discerning between the two,” he said.
“But some of us cannot afford to not be there because we don’t know what the president will say. We know he has a real affinity and admiration for some people on the far-right. We are showing up to make sure whatever is said by whomever, it does not cloud the memory of Vernon Dahmer and others like him,” Dahmer said.
The director of the Mississippi Department of Archives, Katie Blount, said she welcomed the president’s visit.
Trump frequently offends and ignites controversy with his remarks on race. But Blount, who said she did not know details of his speech, said she was “not worried about what he’ll say.”
She said the attention on the president could increase the museum’s prominence.
“There is no question our reach will be extended by his visit,” Blount said. “Everyone of us, including the president, can learn from these exhibits.”