Amid a backlash, Donald Trump visits civil rights museum

VIDEO: REUTERS
Trump tours the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
Trump tours the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.PHOTO: NYTIMES

JACKSON, Mississippi (WASHINGTON POST) - Amid a backlash and boycotts, US President Donald Trump addressed a private gathering Saturday (Dec 9) at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson - instead of speaking at the public opening ceremony.

The change in venue came after Trump's plans to visit the museum, which honours civil rights martyrs, drew criticism from those who marched in the movement.

"President Trump's attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum," Representatives John Lewis and Bennie Thompson said in a joint statement on Thursday.

On Friday, museum officials scrambled to accommodate both sides. In a statement issued that afternoon, museum officials announced that Trump - who was invited to the ceremony by Republican Governor Phil Bryant - would tour the museum, then speak to veterans of the cause in a private event in the auditorium of the Two Mississippi Museums complex - the civil rights museum and a museum of Mississippi history.

On Saturday, Trump spoke briefly, peering down frequently at prepared notes. He mentioned several civil rights leaders, including the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, James Meredith and Medgar Evers.

"The Civil Rights museum records the oppression inflicted on the African-American community - the fight to end slavery, to end Jim Crow, to gain the right to vote - so that others might live in freedom," he said.

"Today, we pay solid tribute to our heroes of the past and dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice, peace."

Lewis, who marched with King, said on Thursday he would boycott the stage at the public event if Trump were on it.

The congressman - whose skull was fractured in a beating when he marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in a protest now called Bloody Sunday - tweeted on Friday that Trump's visit would be an insult to those being commemorated.

"After President Trump departs, we encourage all Mississippians and Americans to visit this historic civil rights museum," Lewis tweeted.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the criticism on Friday, saying that the President "hopes others will join him in recognising that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds".

Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, a Democrat, also joined the boycott of Trump's visit.

"The museum opening is a great demonstration of appreciation for a history that must be told," said Lumumba, who gathered with Mississippi leaders and residents protesting Trump's visit.

They gathered at an "alternative event" honouring Mississippi's civil rights legacy.

"The martyrs of Mississippi who have died for our civil rights, for our progress, will not allow me to stand with Donald Trump," Lumumba said.

Earlier in the week, National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) leaders also called on Trump not to attend the opening celebration.

"President Trump's statements and policies regarding the protection and enforcement of civil rights have been abysmal, and his attendance is an affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement," NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

The Two Mississippi Museums were designed as a place for "Mississippians to tell their own stories of the state's rich and complex history," museum officials said. "We will present the history of our state as never before with eye-popping artifacts, photographs, videos, and interactive exhibits."

Mississippi has an ugly racial history. It is the state where 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed Aug 28, 1955, by a white mob that tied barbed wire around his neck and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. It is the state where the three civil rights workers - Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman - trying to register voters in the Mississippi Summer Project, were killed on June 21, 1964, near the town of Philadelphia. Their slayings were captured in the film, Mississippi Burning.

Mississippi is also the state where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was slain in his driveway by a Ku Klux Klan member waiting in honeysuckle bushes across the street from Evers' home.

The Enfield rifle used to assassinate Evers will be on exhibit at the civil rights museum.

On Saturday, Trump called Evers' widow, Myrlie, "a great widow".

The museum, which exhibits slave chains, Klan robes and photos of brutal lynchings, also tells the story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret spy organisation dedicated to keeping segregation in the state. Its objective was to "do and perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states" from perceived "encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof," according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

"The Commission investigated individuals and organisations that challenged the racial status quo."

The Sovereignty Commission story is told in the "I Question America" gallery.

An entire wall of one gallery in the museum displays mugshots of Freedom Riders, hundreds of people who defied threats from segregationists and travelled into the "Deep South" on buses and trains to confront the state's Jim Crow laws and segregated public facilities. Freedom Riders were often met at bus stations by angry white mobs and brutally beaten. Buses were firebombed.

In June 1963, civil rights advocate Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten in a Mississippi jail after returning from a voter registration workshop. Hamer and other civil rights workers were taken to a jail in Winona, Mississippi, where they were brutally beaten.

Hamer, who suffered permanent damage, recounted the beating during a televised speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

"I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush," Hamer told a captivated audience.

"One white man - my dress had worked up high - he walked over and pulled my dress. I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up."

The opening ceremonies celebrate two museums - the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which focuses on the years between 1945 and 1976, and the Museum of Mississippi History, which tracks the state's history from "the Stone Age" through the present.

Both museums, which are connected under one roof, are financed by state funds and private donations.