Column #02

12-15-17

Column #02
Mississippi

One of the upsides of comrade Trump’s appearance at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson was that at least millions of people in America now know that it exists. How many in the state or from outside of it pay a visit remains to be seen. For a lot of people, Mississippi is too far a destination and might not make their bucket list. That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful state. It’s part of America but for many, so removed in so many ways, some might wonder if they have all those normal things other states have. I think that one of the reasons you don’t hear more about Mississippi is that they don’t have a team in the National Football League. Mississippi is America’s North Korea. Oh, don’t get your knickers all twisted up, I’m only kidding.

The fact that Mississippi, with the highest percentage of African Americans than any other state can acknowledge the past enough to even have this museum is a sign of progress. Multiple attempts to get this project going failed. This wasn’t a matter of months, it was years. This is understandable. Some state politicians no doubt wouldn’t want to deliver the news to their constituents that tens of millions of tax payer dollars were going to be used to create a place that puts a bright light on Mississippi’s brutal history. However, they got it done. I think Mississippi should be commended for having the strength to do this.

It would be too easy to only disparage Mississippi for the unspeakably horrific events that mar its back pages. It would be too easy, to write the state off as lost in the mists of time, and only ask, in relation to the museum, “What took you so long?” I think it’s important to acknowledge how slow the pace of change can be and when something positive happens in America, at any time, it should be commended. Personally, as hard a visit as I know it’s going to be, I will go to the museum as soon as I can.

Again, bravo to Mississippi for facing its past. Some of the most painful and revolting chapters of American history happened in Mississippi. Every time you go back to the case of Emmet Till, a fourteen year old African American boy who was murdered in August of 1955, it loses none of its horror. Till was accused of whistling at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant when he was in a grocery store she worked at in Money, Mississippi. A few days later, on August 28th, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half brother J.W. Milam abducted Till, killed him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The next month, on September 23rd, at trial, the all white jury deliberated less than two hours. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of all charges. Even after confessing in a paid interview with Look Magazine the following year, no further charges were brought against the two men.

A part of the interview, reportedly the words of JW Milam, is indicative of the times:

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ‘em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we’ve got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”

Both Bryant and Milam died in 2004. In 2007, in an interview with Tim Tyson, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who made the accusation in 1955, broke her silence and admitted that what she had said at the time wasn’t true. It is impossible, even all these years later, for this not to hurt and give rise to new anger. Two of the doors from Bryant’s grocery store, that young Emmett Till entered in 1955, are in the museum. I don’t want to see them but I know I should. Also in the museum, is the .30‐06 Enfield rifle that Byron De La Beckwith shot and killed Medgar Evers with in June of 1963 in Jackson. I don’t want to see this either.

Medgar Evers is as great as an American as you can name. I learned a lot about him from Maryanne Vollers’ excellent book Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South. Why was Medgar Evers killed? He helped African Americans register to vote. Shooting Medgar Evers in the back as he got out of his car, in his own driveway, was De La Beckwith’s version of making America great again. De La Beckwith was finally found guilty in his third trial, in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison for a crime he bragged about for decades. He died in 2001.

Some of the finest men and women in American history can be found in the struggle for Civil Rights. Try to imagine the level of fear of Civil Rights activists working for CORE, (Congress of Racial Equality) James Chaney age 21, Andrew Goodman age 20 and Michael Schwerner age 24, when they knew they were going to die in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June of 1964. They were shot and killed by members of the KKK. Days later their bodies were exhumed from a makeshift grave.

In full knowledge of what the consequences could be, a young Civil Rights activist named John Lewis, now a member of Congress, representing the great state of Georgia, along with hundreds of others, made that legendary walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7th, 1965, now known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis got his skull fractured.

For the opening day ceremonies of the Civil Rights Museum, comrade Trump was there. John Lewis and Bennie Thompson, representative of Mississippi’s 2nd District congressional district were not. In a statement, Mr. Lewis said:

“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum. The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi. President Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the queen of droll, said of Lewis and Bennie Thompson, representative of Mississippi’s 2nd District congressional district’s no show:

“We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice Civil Rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history. The president hopes others will join him in recognizing that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”

Oh, okay. Please excuse Mr. Lewis and Mr. Thompson for not wanting to be in attendance and get pulled into a photo op with Trump. For Congressman Lewis to have come so far, and endured what he has, to be locked into history standing next to this president would be a life fail. He got his head caved in for that museum.

In defense of Putin’s best boy, what should Trump have done? If he didn’t pay a visit to the museum, he would have been slammed for that as well. At least he went. Who knows, maybe he might have learned something. Maybe one day, he’ll refer to Evers and Till as “fabulous people who are doing great work.”

During his short speech at the museum, Trump said:

“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.”

Corny coming from a man whose administration seems to be on board with any move by any state making it increasingly more difficult to vote. This is territory Mr. Lewis knows quite well. Some of his friends died for it.

The president going to the museum and Representative Lewis not isn’t the issue. It’s that Mississippi took some of the worst moments in the country’s history, that happened to have transpired in their state, and put them on display. This is cultural courage. This is how you get somewhere. There was no way this was easy for Mississippi. No doubt there are some who wish this museum didn’t exist, who would burn it to the ground if they could.

Wouldn’t it be great if Trump’s visit to the museum inspired him, moved him so profoundly, that it compelled him to tell his minority support group about the place at future rallies? Would that blow their minds or what? Ironically, the museum was almost made for Trump and people like him. Something can be right in front of you but that doesn’t mean you’ll see it.

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