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Mississippi turning

A new civil rights museum reflects a state grappling with a history of violent racism

Mississippi turning

A soaring space filled with natural light in the heart of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. (Tom Beck/Mississippi Civil Rights Museum)

On a dog day of summer in 1955, Chicago native Emmett Till walked into Bryant’s Grocery, a simple mom-and-pop storefront similar to a hundred others dotting the South at that time. But Bryant’s would not remain obscure. Till’s fateful encounter there put a small, deep-Delta town called Money on the map and Mississippi in the international spotlight.

As news of the young African-American’s brutal murder spread, a movement galvanized. The Hospitality State became ground zero for much of its activities, garnering a reputation for racial strife that became the stuff of Hollywood movies like Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill.

Now, six decades later, Mississippi has opened the nation’s only state-operated civil rights museum. Inside, Gallery Four focuses on Till’s story. It features the worn doors from Bryant’s Grocery as well as photographs—blown up larger than life—from the 14-year-old’s funeral. Their sepia tones stretch from eye level to soaring ceiling, allowing visitors no escape from the sight of Till’s childish face or his mother’s anguished one, iconic images that helped awaken America from its civil rights stupor.

Rousing Mississippi took longer. The new museum provides proof of that, not only in the timeline of painful events it depicts, but also in its difficult road toward construction. Although state residents tried for years to establish a civil rights museum, money was always a problem. When state officials became convinced that telling the tragic history was necessary and could also attract tourist dollars, the ball finally got rolling.

Haley Barbour was governor in 2011 when Mississippi lawmakers approved the first bonds (eventually totaling more than $90 million) for the civil rights museum and a twin state history museum. Together they cover a space the size of 3½ football fields. Barbour believes the action represented a seismic shift in attitude: “It said our political leadership—overwhelmingly Republican when most of this money was approved—thought it was important that our history be studied, and that it’s important for us to expose our children and grandchildren to it.”

On a local level, supervisors in Tallahatchie County reached a similar conclusion. While brainstorming ways to increase revenue, someone suggested the town of Sumner (pop. 316) had tourism potential: The trial and acquittal of Emmett Till’s accused murderers took place in its two-story courthouse. Soon after that meeting, a courthouse restoration began, but not before the community of Sumner broke a half-century silence concerning what had happened within the courthouse walls. During a 2007 ceremony, community leaders offered the Till family a formal apology, including a declaration that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”

Tom Beck/Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Emmett Till exhibit. (Tom Beck/Mississippi Civil Rights Museum)

Truth telling, when it comes to the highly publicized 1955 trial in Sumner, is ugly. Prosecutors charged Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, both white, with murdering Till, whom they beat, shot, and weighed down with a cotton gin fan before dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. Following five days of testimony, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted them. Just four months later, Look magazine published their jarring confessions, made null by double jeopardy conditions. Support for Bryant and Milam evaporated. Within a year of the trial, their families had closed or sold their string of Delta businesses.

Today, visitors to Sumner can tour a courthouse that looks much as it did in the 1950s. Using newsreel footage for reference, craftsmen meticulously restored the bannister railing, 12 swiveling jury seats, and original windows found in a nearby shed. A new interpretive center across the street helps visitors process what they see. Director Patrick Weems says the goal is changed perspectives: “The idea is to reframe how people think about Emmett Till. We want them to understand that the tragedy led to the beginning of the civil rights movement.” He cites the Sumner Grille as proof that rebuilt trust is allowing the once-beleaguered town to prosper. A white male plantation owner and a black female restaurant manager forged an equal partnership to open the business.

Two hundred miles south of Sumner, another community is also learning to bank on its less palatable pages of history. Tourists each year spend more than $110 million in Spanish-moss-draped Natchez, the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River. Until recently, they rarely heard the slave side of the city’s story.

Sally Durkin owns Open Air Tours, a Natchez business she operates from the vinyl seats of a global electric motor car. Driving the novelty along Broadway Street, she jokes the vehicle “has seven hours of battery life, which is more than I can say for myself.” That type of candor is good for business, and it doesn’t hurt that Durkin’s lineage runs six generations deep in Natchez soil. The 45-minute script she recites for customers is more than just local lore. Even so, she says most tourists aren’t surprised when they stop at the home of William Johnson, a freed slave who later owned slaves of his own: “People who come to Natchez usually have some sort of history buff hidden in them, so they already know a lot. They still want to hear about fluttering fans and rustling silks, though. How the wealth was acquired has, in the past, not often been mentioned or discussed.”

But that attitude is changing. While planning for the city’s tricentennial in 2016, Natchez officials embraced what Durkin describes as a developing dimension of the city’s overall tourism product: African-American heritage.

Slavery swelled during Mississippi’s territorial period, and by the time President James Monroe provided the pen strokes necessary for statehood in 1817, slaves made up more than a third of the population. By 1860, the numbers for Natchez were even higher: 71 percent.

“It’s important that the stories of people of African descent be told by people who look like me. I give my customers truth, not myth,” says Jeremy Houston, 30, co-owner of Miss Lou Heritage Group and Tours. His Natchez tour includes Zion Chapel A.M.E. Church, where Hiram Revels, the first black man to serve in the U.S. Congress, ministered. Houston also drives his van across town to the old Forks in the Road Slave Market, a spot most other guides neglect.

It’s easy to miss. Without markers, the grassy knoll that once housed the second-largest slave market in the then-Southwest could easily fade into anonymity beside its modern neighbors, Solar Eclipse Window Tinting and a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah Witnesses.

According to Houston, antebellum mansion Monmouth, in plain view across the street, keeps things in focus: “Customers have mixed emotions at the Forks. I take them to the three-way point into the city of Natchez, then we walk the path where enslaved people—some carrying babies—walked in chains. I tell them what went on here. I explain that the motto was ‘Buy more negroes to raise more cotton to buy more negroes.’”

Handout

‘It’s important that the stories of people of African descent be told by people who look like me.’ —Jeremy Houston (Handout)

The experience sells. Houston says European tourists, as well as those from Australia, “love it.” Other guides have since followed Houston’s lead, adding an African-American heritage angle to their packages.

But some Mississippians question the push to rebrand past struggles as tourism products. Radio talk show host Kim Wade, who is black, believes such a focus tends to profit some at the expense of others: “Civil rights is an industry here just like the blues industry or the catfish industry. There seems to be a concerted effort by some type of invisible hand to constantly revisit the physical harm and degradation of the Jim Crow and slavery eras. Not to discount it and say it didn’t happen, but dwelling on it keeps people angry and unable to move to the next level.”

Wade understands anger. During his 1979 graduation from Morehouse College, he fell captive to the words of the commencement speaker, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Wade says he spent his next years “dining at the banquet table of hate” before returning to the Christian faith of his family.

He tells of watching the television miniseries Roots with his grandmother and her advice to focus on his opportunities, not anger. “That’s what needs to happen today. Our kids are angry in the face of all this opportunity, even though they haven’t picked one piece of cotton or had one whip put to their backs. The injustices of the past were injustices, but nobody should be held hostage for it forever. There should be an endgame here,” says Wade.

Reaching an endgame in Mississippi’s civil rights saga may ultimately hinge on how it teaches its history. In 2011, the state became one of the first in the nation to institute civil rights education standards for its schools, but providing the means necessary to reach those standards has been sluggish. Research conducted by the Hechinger Report and Reveal shows that nearly all of the state’s 148 school districts rely on outdated social studies textbooks in which freedom rides don’t rate a mention. Segregationist Gov. James K. Vardaman gets 69 mentions.

Changing attitudes, though, are evident. Jackson has renamed its airport in memory of assassinated activist Medger Evers. Mississippi elects more black officials than any other state. And then there is the new civil rights museum The Washington Post calls “a game changer.” Is it enough to finally quell the state’s racial tensions?

Kim Wade says that’s not the right question. He believes the key to resolving lingering issues is to determine whether the parties involved are sincere: “We all have sin in our hearts, and Scripture admonishes us about holding grudges and failing to forgive. Injustices of the past never give blacks or anyone else a pass on this Biblical command.”

In a rare twist, the land of cotton was white on the day the museums opened after 6 inches of surprise snow fell. That morning Ellie Dahmer sat in a patch of sunlight, the outline of the new museums—the centerpiece of Mississippi’s 2017 bicentennial celebration—looming behind her. She was three hours early for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Ellie Dahmer (right), wife of slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer, visits the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

“I’m emotional, but I had to come for him,” Dahmer said, referring to her husband, slain civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer. The longtime widow contributed something significant to museum exhibits: bullet-ridden pieces of Vernon’s 1958 Ford F100 pickup, burned when racists firebombed the family home.

Not far from Dahmer’s spot in the sunlight, young mother Catherine Gray rocked a stroller back and forth as she too waited for the museum’s ribbon cutting to begin. “We consciously chose to raise him here,” Gray said, bending to straighten the blanket covering her 18-month-old son, Guider. When she spoke, she had no trace of a drawl. “We want him to be a part of the new Mississippi.”

No place for prejudice

The day Mississippi officially marked 200 years as a state was a Sunday, and Kelly Jennings preached at Providence Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., where he serves as an elder. Jennings, a former Seattle Seahawks cornerback, is black. His congregation is primarily white.

Kim Henderson

Jennings (Kim Henderson)

At the opposite end of the state, Stephen Steelman was fulfilling his role as pastor of discipleship at Southaven’s Brown Missionary Baptist Church. Steelman is the only white minister at the 11,000-member church.

Both Jennings and Steelman acknowledge their situations aren’t typical, but they believe the slow pace of integration in Mississippi churches is more about worship and preaching styles than racism.

“People have traditions and preferences that have nothing to do with hate. After being at Brown, I no longer view the voluntary segregation of people on Sunday morning as unhealthy. Our church will accept an Anglo or a Hispanic in a heartbeat, but we aren’t going to change our structure to prove something is not an issue,” says Steelman.

Although Jennings enjoyed being part of a multicultural church in Seattle, his family didn’t purposefully seek one out when they moved to Mississippi in 2014: “For me, it’s not so much about ethnicity as it is about doctrine. That was the number one thing on our list.” Still, he sees the worth of intentional outreach. “The hiccup in Mississippi or anywhere is a natural proclivity toward a certain worship style. We need to have the attitude that even if it’s not my preference, I want to join in worship with my brother or sister who is different from me.”

For some congregations, physical setting is a big factor in the integration equation. Kiley Ham serves on staff at Colonial Heights, a suburban church located less than 2 miles from his childhood home. In recent years a large medical presence has brought diversity to the area he says was once predominantly white: “We haven’t always had a multicultural church, but we do now—white, black, Jamaican, Chinese, Peruvian, Thai, Indonesian. That’s because the message conveyed in our pulpit is the gospel is for everyone. We believe prejudice has no place in that.”

Ham thinks Mississippi’s civil rights history makes the state an easy target for those who want to point fingers. He hopes to leave a different legacy: “We are doing our best to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We believe that everyone is our neighbor.” —K.H.

Kim Henderson

Kim Henderson

Kim is a World Journalism Institute graduate and senior correspondent for WORLD. During her career as a homeschool mom, she worked as a freelance writer. Kim resides in Mississippi with her family. Follow her on Twitter @kimhenderson319.