The president is coming to America’s poorest, blackest state to open a civil rights museum on Saturday, and people in the neighborhoods surrounding that gleaming new tribute to the past would rather have Donald Trump visit their present.
“It’s hostile now, more hostile than in a long, long time,” said Pete McElroy, who employs three men at the auto repair shop that’s been his family’s business for three generations. “People almost boast about it: ‘We got our man in the White House and this is the way the ball’s going to roll now.’ “
Three miles from the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, over rutted roads, past littered lots, abandoned houses and shuttered plants and warehouses, McElroy, 69, and other black residents of this struggling capital city say that after nearly a year of the Trump presidency, they have a definitive answer to the question candidate Trump posed when he spoke at a rally in Jackson in August of last year.
“What do you have to lose?” Trump asked, making a quixotic and ultimately failed bid for black votes to a nearly all-white crowd.
“We’re losing a lot,” McElroy said here this week. “Losing Obamacare. Where are people going to go? Losing money. He’s making the rich richer and the poor poorer. Mostly, we’re losing respect. No way you can evade that. The way he speaks, the racists feel like they can say anything they want to us.”
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, R — an early and avid supporter of Trump’s — had invited the president to attend the opening months ago, but few here thought he would actually come. Except for crises such as hurricanes and oil spills, no president had set foot in small, poor, reliably Republican Mississippi for decades.
Trump’s down-to-the-wire decision to attend the opening seemed to change everything. Suddenly, the focus shifted away from the elderly Mississippians who had stood up to police and merchants and employers to demand their rights half a century ago. The president with a knack for dominating conversation had succeeded again. In the local news, at beauty salons and auto repair shops, even in the halls of the new museum, the talk was now about Trump: Why was he coming? What would he say? Would celebration morph into protest and controversy?
Late Thursday, John Lewis, the Georgia congressman who is one of the last surviving leaders of the movement, canceled his commitment to give the keynote address at the opening. Lewis, who had refused to attend Trump’s inauguration because he considered the man an illegitimate president, joined with Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., in announcing that they will not attend because Trump is coming.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” they said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called their decision “unfortunate,” adding that Trump “hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”
On the cusp of the divisive Senate election in neighboring Alabama, Trump has triggered a frenzy of preparation and trepidation. On Thursday, Secret Service agents and state and local police combed every corner of the downtown site where Trump will join aging civil rights movement veterans and local politicians for the opening of two museums — one on the state’s history, the other a strikingly challenging look at the cruelties of race from the 1940s to the 1970s.
Along the streets of Jackson, even people who had no idea that a civil rights museum had just been built with $90 million in state money knew that Trump was coming.
“It’s OK he’s coming, but they should take him to the ‘hood,” said Quinton King, a 22-year-old mechanic at a tire shop on Martin Luther King Avenue. “Let him see we living paycheck to paycheck, can’t get no credit card. It’s like they’re trying to keep everything for themselves up there, and here, we ain’t got nothing. Tell Trump to look around — houses abandoned, streets with holes, power lines hanging down in the street.”
King had not heard of any new museum in town. “Not really my style,” he said. And he saw no reason to learn about the people who had risked their lives to win him the right to vote and to live where he pleased. “We didn’t touch on any history real heavy in school,” King said. “It was all about trying to get you to pass the exit test.”
But although there are no plans for Trump to see any of Jackson beyond the museum, even a quick breeze through its galleries will confront him with a view of American history more complicated than the simple message sent by his “Make America Great Again” slogan.
“I Question America,” reads the banner over one of the museum’s galleries. A panel headlined “Savage Beating” depicts how police in the 1960s, “charged with enforcing the law, instead often brutalized black Mississippians.” The museum presents a searing catalogue of bombings, small daily terrors, grinding humiliations, and rousing odes to the power of community organizing. Five towering black monoliths list the names of those who were lynched - more than in any other state — along with the purported rationale for their deaths: “Lawlessness,” even “mistaken identity.”
It is purposely a challenging view of a time that no one would want to go back to, said Katie Blount, director of the state Archives and History department, which built the museum. “You can’t understand anything about Mississippi or the nation today without understanding this history,” she said.
Mississippians are divided about whether Trump should have been invited to the opening. Some of his supporters, thrilled by news of a presidential visit, have announced plans to attend the opening, which has some civil rights movement veterans worrying that celebration might change into confrontation.
Marshall Ramsey, the cartoonist for the local paper, the Clarion-Ledger, tweeted his hope that Trump won’t say, as he did after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, that “you also had some very fine people on both sides.”
“It’s unfortunate that this president, who has created a climate of racial insensitivity and has embraced white supremacists, would choose to use this celebration of civil rights heroes as a photo op,” said Derrick Johnson, who recently moved from head of the Mississippi NAACP to the presidency of the national organization. “There’s just profound disappointment and sadness that after all these years, Mississippi is finally recognizing the heroes of the movement and this president chooses to be a distraction and an affront.”
Some blacks in Jackson see the museum, however, not as a reconciliation but as another in a long series of slights. “I won’t ever set foot in it,” said Burrell Brooks, a taxi driver who views the museum as an effort by whites to excuse the crimes of the past and the inequalities of the present.
“It’s getting worse, not better, not just for black Americans but for poor whites too,” Brooks said. “You see the Confederate banner back up, the whole Confederate monuments thing. This country is going back to more segregation, and a museum makes people think that’s all history, that’s all fixed.”
The first thing many African Americans in Jackson mention about the museum is the admission price, which is $8. “They charge us to see our own history,” Brooks said.
“Don’t holler about Trump coming,” said Dorothy Benford, 75, a retired teacher who as a young college student worked with civil rights activists in Jackson. “Let him come. Maybe he’ll learn something. If you’re going to holler, holler about the fee, making black people pay to see our own people kidnapped, hung, beaten, killed. Holler about what we have to lose - medical care, day care. Holler about the racist things people are saying about blacks that you did not hear before Trump.”
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, R, one of the most important advocates for the civil rights museum, rejects the idea that Trump has unleashed a new era of racial confrontation. “I don’t hear that,” he said. “The vast majority of Mississippians — black, white, red or yellow — think our state has made as much progress or more than any other state in the last 50 years.”
Even if Trump hasn’t exactly been a symbol of racial reconciliation, Barbour said, “it’s good for our state that the president, whoever he is, is tipping his hat to Mississippi, coming here knowing that there are things in this museum that we do not want to see repeated. The purpose of this museum was to be honest, open, to be candid about things that were indefensible.”
Jackson’s longest-serving city councilman, Kenneth Stokes, isn’t buying that. He drives through his center-city ward and pronounces that he will never enter the museum. “It’s a statement of white control of history,” he said. “In the blackest state in the United States of America, you don’t have one black elected official statewide. Look at these houses, gutted, falling down, it’s like it’s a hundred years ago. How can you have a museum that says this is in the past? It’s not a museum for poor black people, not if they’re charging that high fee. It’s for whites to make themselves feel better.”
Inside the museum, Blount, who is white, nods. She has heard these doubts many times, and she doesn’t expect blacks who are skeptical about state power to embrace the museum right away. “We are a state agency and so was the Sovereignty Commission,” which Mississippi created in 1956 to do battle with federal efforts to integrate schools and voting rolls. Only the reality of the museum can chip away at its critics’ objections, she said.
A harsh voice shouts, “Get off the sidewalk. Don’t you know your place?” A visitor at the Civil Rights Museum has crossed a line on the gallery floor, triggering a recorded reminder of the racial hierarchy that was codified in law and deed in Jim Crow Mississippi in the years before the civil rights movement.
Two miles away from the museum, as Priscilla Sterling recalled, a tense white man corners her daughter on a street in Jackson. “Would you ever date a skinhead?” he asked, and it’s 2017 and she doesn’t know what she can say.
“White men following me, intimidating my daughter - this is the craziest time I’ve ever seen,” said Sterling, 49, a Jackson resident and a cousin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman accused him of flirting with her at her family’s grocery store.
“I used to say I could never have lived in the 1950s or 60s, that I couldn’t have taken the pressure,” Sterling said. “Now it’s 2017 ,and I’ve had people follow me and threaten me with vitriol. It’s vitriol like I never heard before Trump.”