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JACKSON, Miss — She didn’t want him to go, but Mamie Till-Mobley put her 14-year-old baby on a train to Mississippi in 1955 to visit his relatives, anyway. A week later, she got him back: gargled down and spat up by the Tallahatchie River. What happened to Emmett Till was brutal, but the tragedy has been sanitized in Mississippi textbooks and in discussions of this state’s violent, racist history.
In the dead of an August night, two white men, who believed the teen had been flirting with a white woman, seized Emmett from his great-uncle’s home and hauled him to a barn. They humiliated him and battered his face and body before shooting him in the head. Then they tied him by the neck to a cotton-gin fan and discarded him in the black water of the river; a child discovered his bloated and ravaged body three days later.
The sheriff wanted to bury him, fast. But Mamie Till-Mobley demanded her son’s body back. She had to know it was his. The distraught mother opened Emmett’s casket and kept it open during the funeral service so the world “could see what they did to my baby,” as Mississippi civil rights activist Joyce Ladner later recalled her saying. Till’s murder and his mother’s actions galvanized an emerging Civil Rights Movement.
Till-Mobley’s decision to display the brutal outrage of her son’s death is how Emmett Till became the first exhibit of truth, showing up Mississippi’s bald-faced lies and denials, in the face of a not-guilty verdict for his killers by an all-white jury and despite the best efforts of the white Mississippi public and press to deny his identity and humanity and refuse to hold itself accountable for his murder. Her son’s story will be on display for all the world to see when the new Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum open their doors for the state’s bicentennial next month. The two museums, under a single roof, are contained in a 200,000-square foot complex that at its completion will house over 22,000 artifacts.
The museums are vast, engaging and traumatizing. Although, I am not convinced a single book, monument or artifact can reform the state’s intellectual and emotional predisposition to deny its reign of white supremacy, the Civil Rights Museum unearths and displays the truth, in ways the state’s public school classrooms and outdated textbooks have not. This failure was evidenced by my recent lengthy investigation into how Mississippi’s schools teach the Civil Rights Movement that revealed the lack of training, instruction and resources available, how little students and teachers know about the movement, and how much context their resources lack. Two textbooks commonly used in the state report that Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten and killed, but end with this poor summary of the impact of his death: “The coverage of the trial and acquittal of his accused murderers … painted a poor picture of Mississippi and its white citizens.”
Even though Mississippi updated its curriculum to include civil rights education in 2011, during my investigation I found it hard to establish whether teachers know about or are teaching the subject in any depth. The state has painfully few memorials that explain the protests, and the rhetorical, musical and cultural impact of those who lived during and died for the Civil Rights Movement. The names and actions of many of these civil rights martyrs may be imprinted in American history, but in Mississippi, many landmarks of the movement have been destroyed. In McComb, home to violent bombings and lynchings during the Freedom Summer in 1964, there’s still a memorial, a cornucopia of relics that sing the arrival of Africans in the United States as chattel and end with their bloodied, hard-won, modest triumphs after centuries of systematic attempts to stamp out their dignity and pride. But, despite the importance of the material, the memorial is as small as my grandparents’ home, a nondescript Southern house you wouldn’t look at twice.
Now we have a new museum, with hundreds of thousands of square feet of proof that will make our state’s bleak history and the Civil Rights Movement it helped inspire hard to ignore. I had a sneak preview and found both glorious context and a tour of history that goes well beyond Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s, in exhibits that show a movement in which black people are doing more than claiming their civil rights; they are doing the unfinished work of reclaiming their humanity.
The Civil Rights Museum will open on the state’s bicentennial. Each of the galleries — some of which are still unfinished — will be mostly interactive, and will follow a timeline of black history in the United States and in Mississippi. For me, the most emotionally pummeling section of the Civil Rights Museum was dedicated to Jim Crow. On one side of the walkway through the gallery is a gnarled tree, with ceiling-high branches yielding as foliage large, oval-shaped prints of racist advertisement at the end of each branch, the images recalling the culture and attitudes a racist society used to justify the callousness toward and dehumanization of black people. On the other side are a series of panels entitled “Lynchings in Mississippi,’’ emblazoned with names — at least those we know — of the hundreds killed by mob violence, along with the alleged crime, race of the person lynched, and date. Most of the lynched were black men. The museum is still collecting names; someone may know a lynching victim whose name is not listed on the display.
“It’s meant to make you uncomfortable,” my tour guide said of this section.
Past the tree is a display dedicated to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, Parchman Farm in the Mississippi Delta, with written placards explaining how the state manipulated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, to create a de facto slave system on prison land, and an original copy of folklorist Alan Lomax’s recordings of the prison songs of the incarcerated.
And then, there are displays of the most notorious lynchers’ sheet-like uniforms. The museum has Ku Klux Klan relics, from paintings of men in their original uniforms, to full Klan regalia — masks and robes. One display houses a Klan robe with dirt still smudged on its hem; resting at its feet is a tiny, doll-sized coffin, a predecessor to the burning crosses used as symbols of intimidation. The museum also exhibits burnt crosses, some donated by activists who’d wrested them from their own lawns.
Around a corner, you’ll find a post-World War II gallery with a special exhibit on segregated schools. A classroom split in two — one half white, one half black — is meant to show life in segregated classrooms in 1954 Clay County. More than 60 years later, in what is now the West Point Consolidated School District, almost 80 percent of public school students are black.
The museum dedicated theaters to showing films on the lives and deaths of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights activist and NAACP leader killed outside his home in 1963. It will soon exhibit the actual doors to Bryant’s grocery, the place where Emmett Till encountered Carolyn Bryant, the white woman with whom he was accused of flirting before he was killed. The Medgar Evers theater will show the gun used to kill him.
I did not get a guided tour of the adjoining Museum of Mississippi History; like its sister museum, it’s not quite finished, so I took advantage of the time I had left to wander exhibits at my own pace. The Mississippi history-focused museum begins in a setting like a campfire and leads chronologically through the state’s history, starting with the plight of Native people on whose stolen land we sit. The exhibits show major slices of Mississippi’s past: The Great Flood that spurred so many black Mississippians to move to the Midwest in the early 20th century; clothes, china and paintings from the homes of the antebellum white elite; regalia from soldiers on the losing side of the Civil War.
I came across an exhibit entitled “How We Lived,’’ that recreated a slave cabin. Inside, a mannequin held up a long, patterned skirt, donated to the museum by a local woman, a skirt that belonged to a woman whose grandmother was born enslaved. It made me think of my own great-great-grandmother, and of the lifetime of horror and subjugation she must have faced; it made me cry.
Reminders of Mississippi’s slave-owning and segregationist past are often less subtle and demonstrate the critical need for history classes that deal with race. In 2005 that past came screaming back to the present when Edgar Ray Killen, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of manslaughter in the 1964 deaths of Freedom Riders James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were arrested, kidnapped and murdered during the massive volunteer voter registration effort known as Freedom Summer.
In the midst of the ensuing international media frenzy and newfound interest in the Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi public school teachers saw a window of opportunity to bring teaching about the movement into Mississippi classrooms. Some reached out to the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Oxford for help. They told Susan Glisson, then the institute’s director, that they wanted to do more to ensure Mississippi’s students learned about the state’s pivotal past “so that nothing like this happens again.”
But despite the importance of teaching an unvarnished version of the state’s history, many teachers had held back, fearing retribution from parents if they dedicated classroom time to significant conversations about race, Glisson said. How could they teach the truth without fear of repercussion?
The Winter Institute answered the call. While Killen sat in jail awaiting sentencing, the Institute hosted a three-day Civil Rights teaching summit, just a block away from the Neshoba County Courthouse where Killen was convicted, that spread so rapidly in popularity that supporters decided to take their cause to the next level and ask state legislators to make lessons about the movement a requirement for the state’s public schools.
In the last year, I’ve met with and spoken to creative and enthusiastic educators who felt the significance of the movement and knew it was important to teach it to their students, despite lackluster textbooks, the passivity of their colleagues and administrators, and the omnipresent threat of state testing in a state that posts some of the lowest scores in the country.
For many, visiting the new museum with their students and learning about the Civil Rights Movement could be the best, if not only opportunity they have to learn how young Americans throughout the U.S organized to oppose white supremacy and to pursue justice and voting rights — even if many don’t pay attention to how young people do that work now.
But, for Mississippi, the Civil Rights Museum will give the truth another home beyond the lived experiences of those historically silenced. There is no way it will be able to tell every story. At least, now, there’s a place to go to see the lives that were hidden, to hear the silenced speak.