In the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which officially opens in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, a single exhibit on the third floor captures the charm and horror of small-town Mississippi in the Jim Crow era.
The display celebrates the photos of Henry Clay Anderson, who chronicled black life in segregated Greenville, Mississippi, from the 1940s to the early 1970s.
Anderson’s serene images of little-league baseball teams, holiday parades and joyous social gatherings offer a rare glimpse into a thriving alternate world created by blacks who were systematically excluded from white society.
But the most powerful photos in Anderson’s exhibit are of Rev. George W. Lee’s bullet-shattered car windows and Lee’s buckshot-disfigured face at his open-casket funeral service.
The head of the NAACP in Belzoni, Mississippi, Lee was killed by a drive-by shotgun blast on May 7, 1955, presumably for his efforts to register blacks to vote.
The display includes a map of Mississippi dotted with the locations of 36 racially motivated murders that occurred there from 1955 to 1967. Among the few suspects who were prosecuted, each was acquitted by all-white juries. Lee’s killer was never brought to justice.
It’s tough viewing, even for those who already know that more African-Americans were lynched in Mississippi than in any other state.
But it’s an ugly truth that Mississippi leaders have grudgingly resigned themselves to tell.
Next year, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson will open as the nation’s first state-funded and state-operated museum to document the violent struggle for black equality.
Supporters are betting the pain of Mississippi’s past will prove a popular attraction for students, historians and people of all races who struggle to acknowledge or understand the brutality that has shaped African-American life in the Magnolia State.
And just as the Smithsonian exhibit in Washington showed the inspiring and oppressive side of black life Mississippi, so too will the state’s museum, said Katie Blount, Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which will operate the museum.
“That’s the very same experience that people will have in our museum,” Blount said of the Smithsonian exhibit on R.C. Anderson. “They’ll see stories of successful African-American professionals and business leaders. And, of course, all of the more difficult aspects of the story, including the lynchings.”
Like the Smithsonian listed the names of blacks murdered in Mississippi at the height of the civil rights movement, every gallery of the Mississippi museum will prominently list the names of lynching victims and give short descriptions of what happened to them.
“Lynching is a powerful and important part of the story that we tell,” Blount said.
To be successful in drawing visitors of all races, however, the Mississippi museum must walk a fine line – in being truthful about the past, while explaining the benefits of understanding that history to individuals who may not want to face it.
“If you know you’ve got a significant powerful minority that is hostile to telling the ugly and comprehensive history, but you still want them to know that history, you have to figure out strategies to explain to them how it directly benefits them. ... The museum will have to do this in order for people to attend. And they’re aware of this,” said Jennifer Stollman, academic director at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi.
Mississippi state senator John Horhn, a long-time museum supporter in the state legislature, said he’s confident the museum will strike the right balance.
Despite the legacy of voting rights denial, terrorism, political disenfrachisement and social degradation that blacks endured in Mississippi, the museum will use special-effects lighting to symbolize the great potential that the future holds.
“We’ve got to use these monuments and exhibits as a way to move forward and to find reconcinlliation,” Horhn said.
The $106 million museum project – which includes a separate Museum of Mississippi History – is the latest in a growing chain of civil rights repositories that have sprung up in the Deep South, where the movement’s most violent episodes played out.
In Memphis, the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, became the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened in Alabama in 1992 to commemorate that city’s violent racial encounters.
The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute opened in Selma, Alabama in 1993 at the foot of the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Greensboro, North Carolina’s International Civil Rights Center and Museum opened in 2010 in memory of the town’s lunch counter sit-in demonstrations.
In 2014, the $103 million National Center for Civil and Human Rights opened in Atlanta.
And a fundraising effort is underway for the International African American Museum slated to open in Charleston, SC in 2019.
So while D.C.’s new $540 million museum may be the first to tell black America’s complete story – from Africans’ first arrival in the New World in 1619 to the current Black Lives Matter movement – the Southern civil rights museums help illuminate the most violent chapters of the struggle.
Together, the museums have sparked a growing civil rights tourism industry among travelers eager to learn more about historic events that were largely ignored for decades.
The new Mississippi museum will add yet another stop on a burgeoning civil rights tourism trail, said Laura Mandala, whose market research firm in Alexandria, Virginia, specializes in travel and tourism.
“Somebody interested in civil rights in one town is likely to be interested in civil rights in another town, so it’s only a matter of time before there’s a trail that’s established that takes travelers from town to town, similar to the Blues trail or the Jazz trail that we’ve seen in the South. And I think it will be a very popular route for both domestic and international travelers,” Mandala said.
In a 2011 survey of African-American travelers, Mandala found that 81 percent were interested in learning about the role blacks have played in the progress of the nation. Another 77 percent were interested in Martin Luther King, Jr., the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement and Rosa Parks.
Mandala said black travelers spent $48 billion a year in 2011 and probably $60 billion a year today. For Southern communities struggling economically, those tourism dollars are proving hard to ignore.
“In these desperate times, in many Southern communities, tourism is seen as an economic panacea,” said an e-mail from Glenn T. Eskew, a Georgia State University history professor. “Although it certainly helps in Selma (Alabama), where a civil rights pilgrim can consume the past in a variety of ways not to mention also buying food, gas and lodging.”