Over spring break I went on a 2,000 mile road trip to Jackson, Mississippi to see the state’s new civil rights museum. As historian Jemar Tisby explained when the museum opened back in December, the philosophy behind the exhibits is influenced by John Dittmer’s 1994 book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum does not settle for expanding the pantheon of civil rights heroes (Martin Luther King, John Lewis etc) with new ones (Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers etc.). Instead, the museum presents an overwhelming array of names and photographs of the army of local people who:
registered to vote,
rode greyhound busses,
prayed in churches,
ate at lunch counters,
and went to jail.Overwhelming, at least, for those who prefer their history neat and contained and bounded. These exhibits, and the history they reveal, defy any individual’s encyclopedic knowledge. This is a good thing. As the museum’s advisors and designers no doubt intended, a visitor leaves with a sense of the massive, messy, movement of local people that over decades challenged the forces of white supremacy that enslaved, disenfranchised, and oppressed African Americans in Mississippi and America: a movement of local people that continues to the present and that you--a visitor to the museum--can choose to join.
White supremacy, of course, is not a disembodied force: it took white supremacists to make it work. It took hundreds of thousands of “local people” too--far more, in fact, than the local people demanding civil rights. This is a reality that the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum does not communicate as successfully. It does not, in my opinion, succeed in giving the visitor an equivalent sense of this massive, messy and continuing movement of local people.
Don’t misunderstand me, the museum does not sugarcoat or minimize the crimes of white supremacists:
school segregation.But it only gestures toward the armies of local people behind these crimes using Klan robes, burnt crosses and the names and photographs of the usual villains (Sam Bowers, Cecil Price, Edgar Ray Killen, Ross Barnett).
But the thousands of Mississippi’s schoolchildren passing through the museum really need to understand this other movement of local people.
To appreciate the forces preventing this, just engage in this thought experiment. Imagine the announcement of a new museum: The Mississippi Massive Resistance Museum. It is a museum that tells the long story of white supremacy and massive resistance stretching from the earliest days of European settlement to the present day. It presents the range of people who profited from white supremacy and the lengths regular people went to to maintain their race-based privilege. The museum helps visitors understand how white supremacy required tens of thousands of local people to support and maintain it.
Imagine, one display tells the story of the trial of Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam--the self-confessed murderers of the young Emmett Till in 1955. Bryant and Milam’s photographs are there of course, just as they are in the civil rights museum; but in this imaginary Massive Resistance Museum, so too are the photographs and names of the white men on the grand jury who refused to indict them.
Another display contains the names and photographs of law enforcement officers known to have been in the Klan. A whole wall has the names and photographs of the directors of the state’s chapters of the Citizens’ Council. These lists of names are available in the state’s secret police files. Looking at the photographs of the directors of Jackson’s chapter, visitors will see the city’s white attorneys, civil servants, doctors, and business owners.
White children will see their grandparents.
You get the idea.
Can you imagine such a museum actually being built in Mississippi or any other state in the union?
I am afraid I can’t imagine this level of truth-telling:
the kind of truth-telling we need as a country so that we are not constantly surprised by the irruptions of hate and violence;
the kind of truth-telling we need as a country so that we are not blindsided by the unidentified but often felt influence of white supremacy in the lives of local people.
I can’t imagine it.
But then I couldn’t have imagined the opening of a national museum taking a hard look at the history of lynching either . . . and that happened today. So what do I know?