When I heard President Donald Trump would visit the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, I rolled my eyes and asked myself why would he, a man who has been incredibly divisive throughout his campaign and during his first year in office, want to attend the opening of a museum whose very focus is in stark contrast to his agenda?
And then I reminded myself who our president is: a man who loves the limelight and a man who continuously attempts to rewrite his own history by denying the obvious truth of his words and actions. Of course he would want to attend such a historic event — even if his political stances on various issues are in direct conflict with the ideals of equality and justice that the people featured in the museum stood (and sometimes died) for.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the adjacent Museum of Mississippi History are located in downtown Jackson, the state’s capital. Not far from the museums is my alma mater, Jackson State University, one of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the state.
I spent five years of my life in Jackson, five formative years that helped shape me into the person I am today. As a freshman, I remember how drastically different Jackson was compared to Indianapolis. One of the biggest differences I noticed almost immediately was the heightened racial tension. In Jackson, even in the late ’90s, it was clear how some whites felt about Blacks. I had never before experienced the looks of hatred that some caucasian strangers gave me. I couldn’t understand how they could be so angry toward someone they’d never met or even spoken to. Many of my friends from the north and I quickly got a crash course on where it was safe to go and areas we should never go alone or after dark. It was truly a culture shock for me, but I quickly assimilated to the culture, ever cautious of the warnings from other students and trusted adults at the university.
Sadly, nearly 20 years after I left Mississippi, many of those same unwritten codes exist in Jackson and surrounding cities. While the state has diversified in many ways, it still drastically lags behind more progressive states.
The reason it is important for me to provide insight into the culture of Mississippi today — and even Mississippi of years ago when 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, or the Mississippi where countless lynchings have occurred over the years — is because it speaks to the tone and culture that still exists in the state. That is why Trump’s appearance at the opening of the museum was so disappointing.
Blacks in that state have experienced so much despair and adversity that run generations deep. The museum is something that is not only an accurate representation of history, but is also an acknowledgment of Black pain. To have such a museum in a state that is still considerably conservative is a tremendous accomplishment; however, to have a man who has been so contentious and inflammatory toward Blacks and other minorities present at the event was not only inappropriate, but also grossly disrespectful. Only the day prior to his attendance at the museum, Trump publically campaigned in support of Roy Moore, an Alabama judge known for his discriminatory philosophies who has been accused of sexual misconduct.
Due to the growing controversy leading up to Trump’s visit, the White House and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History created a separate private program featuring the president as a compromise. The fact that opposition to Trump was strong enough to garner a completely separate event further illustrates why he simply should not have visited the museum.
Change can’t happen without knowledge, so perhaps the president soaked up some much-needed education about the not-so-distant past that could help in his current role as commander in chief. The United States is more divided now than it has been in decades. Revisiting the dark past could help in restoring the future. At least one can only hope.
I look forward to visiting the museum during my next trip to Mississippi. I look forward to honoring the efforts of those people who advocated against injustice and discrimination. I am confident this museum will be just as impactful and popular as its counterparts around the country.