JACKSON, Miss. — In a sun-dappled square at the top of a bluff, an unlikely group of politicians, civil rights veterans and educators gathered this week to commemorate some of the darkest moments in the Magnolia State’s history.
The occasion? A ground-breaking ceremony for the nation’s first civil rights museum, a permanent tribute to horrific events like the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers — markers to a legacy of racism and oppression many would rather forget.
Forgetting would be a terrible mistake.
If private fundraising continues, the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum will become a major complex in downtown Jackson, the ghost-like city where a gilded, eight-foot eagle sits atop the dome of the Beaux-Arts capital, facing away from Washington, D.C.
Change has been a long time coming in Mississippi. There are just a few scattered memorials to the civil rights movement: a new statue of Evers in Jackson, and the eternal flame on the grave of James Cheney outside Meridian.
That’s why it was so gratifying to see four sitting governors listening to the voice of Myrlie Evers-Williams, the 80-year-old widow of the slain civil rights activist, who has spent decades seeking justice for his 1963 murder.
“I thank Medgar Evers every day for believing, not only in his country, but in the state of Mississippi,” Evers-Williams said, as the stars and bars of the Confederate flag fluttered in front of her.
The irony was not lost on former Gov. William F. Winter, an unrelenting advocate for improving education in Mississippi.
“Myrlie Evers has every right to be the bitterest woman in America,” said Winter, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. “She is far from that. She understands that hatred and bitterness never educated a child, never lifted a school.”
Evers-Williams helped organize demonstrations and voter registration guides with her husband when he was field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and assisted his fight to desegregate the University of Mississippi some 50 years ago.
As MacLean notes, this was a belief that “the black man was inferior to the white man … it was against the law to teach black and white kids in the same classroom, or for blacks and whites to have sex.”
People like Susan Glisson of the William Winter Institute for Racial Conciliation, who headed passage of the nation’s first state law that requires the teaching of civil rights and human rights history in Mississippi public schools.
People like former Secretary of State Richard Molpus, whose heartfelt speech in 1989 proclaiming that Mississippi owes an apology to the world for the slaying of three civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner still resonates.
People like Jennifer Stollman, who has been leading helpful discussions on sexual orientation, race and discrimination at the University of Mississippi, following the disruption of a theater department production of The Laramie Project, with heckling and anti-gay slurs.
Clemons doesn’t display bitterness about the triple murders of young civil rights workers he barely learned about as a child, but has instead devoted himself to the belief that education can prevent the past from repeating itself.
Myrlie Evers-Williams has lived her life fighting these beliefs, yet the legacy of racism permeates every aspect of the way children are educated in Mississippi.
Medgar Evers believed Mississippi “will be the best place to live in the United States, once we put our problems, our hatred and our racism behind us,’’ his widow said this week.
It’s one of many reasons why a state-funded memorial is so urgently needed, and why I hope private funding will help draw generations of school children and visitors to learn what happened here.