A day long anticipated, and for much longer doubted, will finally be here on Saturday: the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the only state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country.
Dignitaries of the movement — including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers — are scheduled to speak. Lesser-known veterans of the movement, who had been jailed or beaten, plan on attending, too.
And then on Monday another guest was announced: President Donald Trump.
To some who see the museum’s opening as the fulfillment of a hard-fought dream, the president’s visit is seen as a tolerable distraction or even welcomed as an honor. To others, who see the president as racially divisive and hostile to many things they care about, the announced visit was, said Jacqueline Amos, the chairwoman of the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee, “a slap in the face.”
A number of young activists are busily putting together protests — a silent kneel-in, possibly, or a street demonstration — in a parallel of the history chronicled in the museum itself.
“This is still a free country, and attending this event is open to anyone who wishes to come,” said Evers-Williams, whose donation of her late husband’s papers to the Mississippi state archives gave credibility to the museum project within the civil rights community. “I hope in his coming there will be an opportunity for him to learn something.”
She added: “If God gives me the breath and the strength, I will address his attendance when I stand to speak.” She declined to elaborate further.
The civil rights museum, officially opening Saturday, sits alongside a new Museum of Mississippi History in a 200,000-square-foot complex in downtown Jackson. It covers the civil rights struggle from 1945 until 1976, and also the white supremacist violence that surrounded it. The places and dates of Mississippi lynchings are on display, as is the rifle used to murder Evers; the bullet-riddled truck that belonged to the murdered activist Vernon Dahmer; and a charred Klan cross.
The efforts behind the museum go back years, picking up speed when the Legislature, at the urging of former Gov. Haley Barbour, approved funding in 2011.
“I’ve been involved for at least 40 years trying to get a civil rights museum in Mississippi,” said Reuben Anderson, who was the state’s first black Supreme Court justice and is now chairman of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Foundation. “It’s going to be just a magnificent event, and I don’t think anything can dampen it.”
But suspicion about the museum, particularly among veterans of the movement, loomed over its early stages. Mississippi is lauded as the only state to have such a museum, but it was also among the most violent antagonists of the civil rights movement and to this day flies a state flag adorned with a banner of the Confederacy.
“There’s an African proverb: when the hunter tells the story the lion always loses,” said Frank Figgers, who was involved in civil rights work as a student at Tougaloo College in Jackson in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Still, in recent weeks, a number of once-wary civil rights veterans were given preliminary tours, and many came away reassured, and even enthusiastic about the way the story was told.
“I’m excited about what I’ve seen,” said Charles McLaurin, 77, who was an early organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, registering blacks to vote in the Mississippi Delta. Having overcome an early skepticism, he was eager to attend the grand opening — before he learned of the president’s visit. “If Trump is there,” he said, “I’m going to find somewhere else to be.”
The objections to Trump’s visit, recounted in interviews and statements from civil rights organizations, arise from his efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, his support for voting restrictions and his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, in which he equated activists decrying racism with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists they were protesting.
“He has created a commission to reinforce voter suppression, refused to denounce white supremacists, and overall has created a racially hostile climate in this nation,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, in a statement. Some blamed the governor, Phil Bryant, a Republican, for inviting the president in the first place.
A spokesman for the governor did not return email messages or phone calls Tuesday. Attempts to reach the director of the museum also went unreturned.
Asked to comment Tuesday about people protesting Trump’s visit to the museum, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said: “I think that would be honestly very sad. This should be something to bring the country together.”
There are civil rights veterans here, by no means supporters of Trump, who see protests or boycotts similarly, suggesting that they would only take away from what should be a moment of celebration.
“Why should I protest something that I worked so hard for?” asked Hezekiah Watkins, 70, who lost count of how many times he was arrested for civil rights protests and at one point even shared a cell with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Donald Trump is going to be here for probably two hours max and he’s done. This museum is for you to enjoy.”
Watkins, who works with cancer patients at a Jackson hospital, said he was asked by younger activists to participate in the protests, but saw little point to them. “The majority of the protesters Saturday are going to be the ones who know nothing about what took place back in the day,” he said.
But those planning the protests are discussing some of the very issues that Watkins raised: how to register their opposition to Trump without disrespecting the civil rights figures who will be a part of the ceremony, or those who worked to get the museums built. They also insist that their demonstrations would be very much in the spirit of the history being recounted in the museum.
“There’s a part of me that thinks Trump’s coming is important,” said Talamieka Brice, 37, a business owner in Jackson, who is helping to organize protests. “It’s a reminder to the next generation that the fight isn’t over. Even though we have a civil rights museum, the fight for civil rights still continues.”
In some ways, there is no more fitting way to mark the opening of this museum, suggested Ralph Eubanks, a professor of English at the University of Mississippi who is leading a panel in connection with the opening and plans to be there Saturday.
“What may happen on Saturday, with all these SNCC veterans here, I may be in the middle of a good old-fashioned civil rights protest — the one I was too young to take part in when I was a child,” he said. “I will be happy to be part of that.”