The opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson a while back represented a significant cultural milestone, not only to Mississippi but to the entire nation.
With its stated mission to document, exhibit the history of and educate the public about the American Civil Rights Movement in the state of Mississippi between 1945 and 1970, the museum will no doubt be a major tourist draw. The fact that our state, once mired in racial chaos with a rift between whites and blacks that at one time seemed impossible to surmount, has chosen to look its history—square in the face—is enormous. Its very presence in our state’s Capital shows how far we’ve come in the years since 1970 and perhaps, what else needs to be accomplished.
The museum secured $20 million in funding from the Mississippi Legislature in April 2011 after Gov. Barbour testified in favor of its funding. Its opening coincided with the bicentennial celebration year of Mississippi statehood. According to Mississippi state Senator John Horhn, it is the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the United States.
The first room entered in the eight-gallery building is called “Mississippi Freedom Struggle,” featuring a timeline beginning from when people from Africa were brought to the United States through the slave trade until their Emancipation by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865.
In the center of the museum, which the other galleries branch off from, is an amazing exhibit called “This Little Light of Mine,” which features a 40-foot sculpture placed in the center of the room with lights that flicker as people enter—depending on the number of people coming through—and it plays a recording of people singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
One room features the faces of Freedom Riders who were arrested in Jackson. In that same area, there is a model of a jail cell showing how some who were part of the movement were treated.
Another feature in the museum is called “Black Empowerment,” which tells the story of how people were brought together for the sake of empowerment in various ways to bring themselves up. There are also eight interactive galleries that chronicle the struggles of black Mississippians and their fight for equality.
These are not easy things to see. They weren’t meant to be.
But that is the purpose in one sense, isn’t it? To honor those who sacrificed and fought for civil rights, yes; but also to act as a visceral reminder that we dare not let history repeat itself. In that sense, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is similar to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., which I have had the honor and privilege of going through. When you actually see examples of others’ pain, suffering, degradation—but ultimate triumph—it is an inspiring and, probably, necessary sight.
The opening of the museum is Mississippi making history again—but in a beneficial and positive way this time. It was just a historical blink of the eye when the events chronicled and the people honored in the museum were fighting for their rights. Today, a testament that will stand for many years for future generations sits in the heart of the state that once represented only hatred and bigotry to the rest of the U.S. and the world, honorably admitting its wrongs and hailing the heroes of a movement we may never see the likes of again.
If you have not had the opportunity to visit the museum, I urge you to go see it—whatever your race, age, political persuasion or creed. It is our history on display for the world to see. And it is also a symbol of who we are—as Mississippians—today: people who are willing to deal with its past in order to secure a better future.
Scott Coopwood is a seventh-generation Deltan who lives in Cleveland, Mississippi with his wife Cindy and their three children. Scott is the publisher and owner of Delta Magazine, one of the South’s leading lifestyle publications, the Delta Business Journal, the first business publication in the Mississippi Delta; and Cleveland’s weekly newspaper, The Cleveland Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.