Myrlie Evers came back to Jackson, Mississippi, on Oct. 24, 2013, even though her home state had conspired to destroy her husband, Medgar Evers, finally leaving him in a pool of blood in her driveway, her children screaming as he fell, on June 12, 1963.
A Klansman and Citizens Council member gunned down the NAACP leader, who had already spent time in the more metaphorical crosshairs of state leaders (like Gov. Paul Johnson who called his organization — during his successful gubernatorial campaign — “N*ggers, Apes, Alligators, Coons and Possums”).
But 50 years later, Myrlie Evers was 4.3 miles from that driveway — which still has bloodstains — for the groundbreaking of the state-funded Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. "I thank Medgar Evers every day for believing not only in his country, but in the state of Mississippi," she said then. "He used to say, repeatedly, that this will be the best place to live in the United States, once we put our problems, our hatred and our racism behind us."
A Mississippi flag — with its iconic Confederate battle cross — flapped as Evers talked and Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who attended a whites-only Citizens Council school in south Jackson, listened. Bryant supports a state referendum on the flag (though the last such vote, split along racial lines, went strongly in favor of keeping it as-is), but routinely proclaims Confederate Heritage Month and supports policies that hurt many black Mississippians and others here; his involvement in the museum created more than a little suspicion among civil rights veterans.
Many people worried that Bryant’s involvement could have meant the lies from our history books would fill the museum, or at best watered-down false equivalency between terrorists and their brave victims. And, in fact, some civil rights veterans initially refused to turn over artifacts to the museum, perhaps thinking the governor and friends would stuff them down a state-funded memory hole to destroy the evidence.
But when black Jackson native Pamela Junior (who can curl your hair with lyrical stories of the racism she experienced as a child) came on board to direct the museum in 2017 and as word got out that the exhibits were "real" —and that Bryant hadn’t excised reality — excitement built for the Dec. 9 opening day.
Then the Trump bomb dropped: The governor that much of Jackson distrusts invited the president that Jackson pretty much despises to join them at the museum opening. The capital city moaned, and Bryant condescended back in a tweet: “Mississippi should be proud that @POTUS has agreed to speak…. Let us come together as one Mississippi.”
Black Jackson, and its allies, are not buying it, though — and Bryant’s name is dirt here this week for ruining the event. Hinds County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jacqueline R. Amos (who is black) said that Trump's "campaign appealed to the very worst demons of the American soul," adding that “such a hugely divisive and polarizing figure will pervert and diminish what could otherwise be a healing and teaching moment for our state.”
Civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., announced in a joint statement that they now won't be attending, writing that "Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum." Former Gov. Ray Mabus, a Democrat, also announced that he was staying away, saying "an overt racist and a supporter of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, Donald Trump represents the exact opposite of what this museum is about."
But here in Mississippi, few whites either know or openly acknowledge the depth of our structural racism. Still, I was 5 when Martin Luther King Jr. led a march in my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi, and a local drove a car into a crowd of marchers (like that young racist is accused of doing earlier this year in Charlottesville).
Since then, I’ve learned just how entrenched my state has historically been on “the race question” — but not because the people who started rushing here in the 1830s to claim Choctaw lands were somehow worse humans than all the others in the nation profiting from slavery and plunder. The fatal lure of fertile land, hot sun and safe distance from abolitionists created the fresh hell called Mississippi, which became the wealthiest state.
But here in Mississippi, few whites either know or openly acknowledge the depth of our structural racism.
Structural racism started with enslaved people brought here, often raped, beaten, hobbled and split from loved ones; it continued through the Confederates’ treasonous war to maintain and extend slavery and reclaim enslaved people who had fled; and it was revived after the North sold out former slaves to end Reconstruction and then hamstrung them through sharecropping and unequal schools. It re-accelerated through Klan and Red Shirt night raids to scare black (and white) people into submission and Black Codes to keep freed African-Americans subservient and poverty stricken; it was inculcated in younger whites with “lost cause” mythology bolstered by adoring statues, flags and revisionist textbooks; and it exploded into violent resistance after black soldiers, including Medgar Evers, returned from World War II wanting freedom but were blocked by redlining and rednecks with guns.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered school integration in 1954, white Mississippi men started the Citizens Council to threaten reluctant whites and spread lies about black inferiority and genetic crime propensity; they brought back the Klan as terroristic enforcers; and they funded the Mississippi outposts of the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race to pay everybody’s bond and legal fees who participated in the disenfranchisement of and violence against African-Americans.
They even funded the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission to spy and file “intelligence” reports on anyone who disobeyed — including reporting on a white gas station owner who once let a black man use his bathroom, and feeding James Chaney’s license plate number to cops in my hometown so their Kleagle buddies could find Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and assassinate them on Father’s Day 1964.
White Mississippi left no escape routes out of this racist maze of destruction — and our state still suffers the residuals today (especially after white people left cities like Jackson, taking their tax base and throwing a lit match behind them to burn down the cities they fled). Structural racism gifted us with high trauma and hopelessness, underfunded schools, fractured families, a disgusting state flag, low voter turnouts, imprisoned parents for drug crimes and shameful generational poverty — all of which is blamed on the “black family” that whites worked so hard to destroy.
Bryant sunk a knife in this state’s back by inviting Trump to the museum opening.
I doubt Trump knows a single piece of this labyrinthine history, other than that an occasional redneck Klansman acted a fool. (After all, he apparently thought that Frederick Douglass was still alive and living in Jersey or somewhere.)
Trump knows enough, though, to prey on fear of black crime for votes (just as many Republicans since Nixon have done), drawing bigots out of the closet to fund greed and granting them tacit permission to not bother rising above our past.
Bryant sunk a knife in this state’s back by inviting Trump to the museum opening, but we can still hope that the president (and the media gaggle accompanying him) will step inside the museum to comprehend and share the full story of what there is to see here, which is about much more than old Kluckers. They can, and we should, use Mississippi as a mirror to understand the deep roots of racism and poverty in America and how it limits our society now.
We can best honor Medgar and other civil rights soldiers by connecting the dots of America’s brutal race history — and the pieces await in Mississippi. Trump may not bother to do much more than give a speech and pose for a photo, but the rest of us can help make this weekend a teachable, urgent moment for America.
Talking about our past without ever fully confronting it can no longer be an option.
CORRECTION (Dec. 12, 11:45 am): An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Pamela Junior joined the Civil Rights Museum. It was 2017, not 2013