My Weekend in Mississippi
Last weekend, I visited the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The two share a common space and opened on the same day, December 9, 2017. From the moment I saw the ribbon-cutting ceremony on TV, I knew I would make the trip – it was a question of when. Jackson, Mississippi is not part of my typical travel route, nor did any president call it home. A random weekend it would be.
Why a civil rights museum? And why this one? To be honest, most of the time, these blogs write themselves. I take a tour and half-way through I have a few different outlines flushed out in my head (if only my fingers could type as fast as my head could think!). But not that Saturday. Candidly speaking, blogging about current events has become more difficult. I just get my mind and thoughts around one event and am hit – like the rest of the country – with another. Anger, frustration, exhaustion, are mixed every once in a while, with humor and relief. And then we start over.
I felt those emotions, and several others on while visiting this museum. In the last two decades, as I’ve studied American history, I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with my initial education on the topic. It must be difficult to teach post-pubescent teenagers the complexities of racial politics over three centuries, but I think we can do a better job. It’s understandable that so many of us flock to the catchphrase, “Make America Great Again,” if we believe there was an era in which we were great. Obviously, the definition of “great” may be subjective and is not a subject in this post. What is a topic? A little more truth about America’s racial past with the ultimate question being, “Is this who we will always be?”
What are Civil Rights?
Let’s start with a definition of civil rights.
Civil and political rights are those that protect individual’s freedom and liberty from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals. They are there to ensure that everyone can participate in the civil and political life of a society and a state without discrimination, repression, or fear of reprisal.
As it turns out, Americans have many authoritative documents to which we can point that have, over time, guaranteed these rights. Most are found in the Bill of Rights, but a few were added after the Founders passed on.
- The 13th outlawed slavery and indentured servitude.
- The 15th gave freedmen the right to vote by forbidding states from disfranchising based on color, race, or previous servitude.
The 13th and 15th amendments were historically significant, but the 14th was transformational. Its provisions, along with the 15th, should have reconciled America’s most significant racial, ethnic, and class antagonisms long ago. But it would be 100 years after its ratification, before civil rights activists were successful in getting the courts to interpret the 14th amendment in ways that protected blacks from injustice.
The 14th did the following:
- Established citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States. Yes – this is birthright citizenship. The thing that the Trump Administration, and some leading Republicans want to end.
- Applied “due process” to states, mandating that a state may not deny any person “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This protection had already been enforced against the federal government. Now it was applicable to states as well.
- Equal Protection said that a state may not deny a person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.
The 14th also outlined how representatives would be apportioned (repealing the infamous 3/5 compromise from the founding). Before this amendment, the Bill of Rights was applicable only to the federal government, not the states. As such, you can see how significant of a change this was to how we viewed the Constitution and the federal government. The latter became must larger and more powerful than had been the case prior to the Civil War.
Reconstruction ended, and America got scared
You should be asking, “If Reconstruction settled slavery, gave black men the right to vote (yeah – just men…I’ll get to women later), AND protected their civil rights through the 14th amendment, why is there enough material for an entire museum?”
Great question. We live in a country of laws, right? Isn’t that what we hear from certain politicians? We hear it after every riot and certainly after every protest. And at this very minute, we hear it on our southern border. “We need to get back to law and order.” Well, this is in the Constitution, it is so.
I’ve been reading a history of voting and it really is fascinating. Without going to deeply into the time period, I do think it is critical to understand the time period of Reconstruction (1863 – 1877) – just to give some context. Reconstruction started during the Civil War – as soon as the Union Army began to occupy a rebel held territory. It ended in 1877 when the last of the federal troops left the south.
What else was going on in the 1870s? Massive industrialization, westward expansion, an explosion of cities, railroads, and an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and Asia (China). America looked very different at the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction than it did when Lincoln was elected. Massive change breeds fear – particularly when that change leads to an influx of people are different from those already in our neighborhoods.
This does not, in any way explain or excuse the “Reedemers” or the “Night Riders” whose goal was to “take back their ‘country’ from the invaders.” Invaders in this context were Republicans who had come south to agitate and register blacks to vote and participate in elections. They were also the ‘carpetbaggers’ from the north who were lured to the south by the thought of cheap land. Southern politicians and white supremacists slowly enacted poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments to the voting booth in a blatant attempt to “take back power” from the black population. Next, they impeached black office holders, and intimidated others with violence. The black population was subsequently forced back into economic servitude, required to sign sharecropper contracts that were to the advantage of the landowner. The war was over, but the planter class still needed cheap labor to work the fields. Given the industrialization and population growth in the west, demand was high. Cheap black labor needed to remain in a subservient state.
And the rest of the country? Well, it needed access to southern raw materials, and the population was not interested in extending political rights much further than their own male backyards (although it should be noted that some western territories organized with women’s suffrage). If too much was made of how blacks were treated in the south, the Irish-Catholics in Chicago and New York might start clamoring for the right to vote or for a minimum wage. It was easier to leave well enough alone. Besides, the northern and western populations didn’t want a massive wave of migrants from the south coming their way. Civil rights and equality as we think of them today, was less prevalent an idea in the late 19th century.
The struggle for civil rights. A lot of wasted energy spent defending a bad status quo.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum tells the story of civil rights in Mississippi. I hesitate to cite any city or state as the tinderbox or lightening rod of the civil rights movement. The truth is that blacks were treated poorly from sea to shining sea. But it was all relative. No, there were not many lynchings in Kansas, but the University of Kansas maintained segregation through the late 60s or early 70s. Lawrence did not integrate its public facilities until the late 60s and good public housing was hard to find during that period too.
We should recognize – and I challenge those of you who look like me to spend more time reading and listening – that discrimination and statements of white supremacy occurred everywhere. It was just displayed more boldly in the south, and specifically in Mississippi. The state with the most letters in its name was one of the tinderboxes set to explode given the racial composition and the caste system that had been in place since the end of Reconstruction. This museum tells that story.
The narrative is split into 5 galleries, each a spoke around a circular hub; a hub of tribute to all the known and unknown Mississippians who died for the Cause. Each gallery covers a specific era:
- Mississippi Freedom Struggle – Definitions and context, early black history, slavery
- Mississippi in Black and White – 1865 -1941
- This Little Light of Mine – the center or hub as described above
- A Closed Society – 1941-1960
- A Tremor in the Iceberg – 1960s
- I Question America – Where are we and where do we go from here?
If you choose to visit, you need to set aside enough time to read the placards and watch the videos. This is not a museum of exhibits – it’s one that tells a story. And stories need to be read. Be prepared to be disturbed. And angry. You should feel a range of emotions. I felt shame – shame that this happened in America. Embarrassment and naivete that we thought passing a few laws would change minds and behaviors.
There are a few exhibits – a few events actually – that I knew about, or at least I knew some details, that were more dramatic than others. And a few events that were “brand new.” Those events stand out in the Mississippi story and I’d like to share them here.
Emmett Till. In the summer of 1955, Emmett, who was from Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi. The wife (Carolyn Bryant) of the general store’s owner (Roy Bryant) accused him of groping her. Three days later, her husband and another man barged into Emmett’s uncle’s home and kidnapped the 15-year-old. A few days later, Emmett was found dead, floating in the river, the wheel of a cotton gin around his neck. He had been lynched, burned, and shot in the head.
The 2 men who kidnapped him were tried in court. Emmett’s uncle identified the killers during the trial. The all-white jury found the men not-guilty in less than an hour. A year later, Bryant and his cohort, J.W. Milam confessed to reporter. Double jeopardy prevented further charges.
But the Till murder marked a historical turning point in the civil rights movement. The sheriff in Money, Mississippi wanted to bury the body as soon as possible, but Emmitt’s mother demanded that he be sent back to Chicago. She insisted on an open casket funeral so that the entire world could “see what they did to her boy.” The photograph, which I will not post here, was printed in Jet magazine and was reprinted in international papers. It went “viral” as the media says today. The murder sparked a national outrage, as did the acquittal. A bright light started to shine on Mississippi.
Emmett Till was not part of our high school curriculum. He should have been because historians pinpoint his murder as “the beginning.” (If there really was a beginning).
600 Lynchings. Within gallery 2, Mississippi in Black and White, stands 5 engraved monoliths, each at least 8 feet high. From top to bottom are the engraved names of known lynching victims. From the end of Reconstruction to the 1960s, nearly 600 people were lynched in Mississippi. What does it mean to be lynched? Murder by mob or extrajudicial means – no trials, no jury of one’s peers. Murder. Most were hung, others were shot, drowned or burned at the stake. Many were terrorized and tortured before they were killed. Dismemberment typically occurred if the murderers wanted to keep a souvenir or wanted to use body parts to intimidate others. 600 people are listed on those boards: names if known, date, race (some were white), and alleged crime.
Many lynching victims were accused of raping a white woman. During this period, white supremacy was bolstered out of fear that black men (animals, in the minds of racists) if allowed to integrate with whites, would come for the women. This is a common scare tactic used to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this tactic used recently. This is not to say that of these 600 murders, there were not some guilty of the crime for which they were accused. It is to say that they were killed without the due process of law. And, I would argue that there a majority of innocent victims.
As a side, I think that lynchings, intimidation, and Klan violence should have been discussed in much greater detail in school. This stuff does not go away, as evidenced by Charlottesville. It’s a parasite that breeds on a culture; one that you have to fight every generation. I came away with the understanding that these horrible things, while part of our history, were just that: in our past. But even if we could say the violence is gone (it isn’t), there is still the legacy of it. There’s an impact to that.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The worst flood in the history of the United States and a natural disaster that had significant ramifications for the history of the country. Ironically, it did not make the history curriculum, but it was pivotal to Mississippi state history. It is explored in great detail in the state history museum, but it also plays a significant role in our civil rights story.
In the 1920s, Mississippi agriculture started to see the effects of over use. Cotton had sapped the soil of necessary nutrients and boll weevils had infested the crop. Farmers, black and white lived on the margin as it was, a few bad years could leave a family destitute. In 1927, however, 27,000 square miles located along the Mississippi River in western Mississippi, eastern Arkansas, and eastern Louisiana flooded when the levees breached. Hundreds of thousands lost everything. In Mississippi, victims were primarily in the Delta, the state’s poorest region. Planters, concerned that their black sharecroppers might never return, asked the governor NOT to rescue their tenants, leaving thousands stranded and destitute. Those that did stay were conscripted by the state government into rebuilding the levees. If they refused, they were denied Red Cross relief.
Black and poor whites, primarily from the Mississippi Delta suffered and barely survived normal times. 1927 was so traumatic, it garnered a large exhibit in the new history museum. Thousands of black sharecroppers left Mississippi after the flood, joining what would come to be known as the Great Migration. This voluntary displacement of southern blacks from the rural south to northern and western industrial cities had a profound impact on the entire country.
Six million people traversed north and west between 1916 and 1970. Think about the historical events of that time period and where they occurred, and the impact of the Great Migration comes into focus.
The Freedom Rides of 1961 were a singular event, but they speak to a much larger and more polarizing issue, that of state sovereignty and federal supremacy. When we, in 2018, look at current events or hear the bitter arguments against federal regulations or intervention in state and local matters, it does not always make sense. The hostility seems overblown. However, federal usurpation of state authority is relatively new to American jurisprudence and when executed, not at all welcome in some parts of the country.
Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who, starting in 1961, rode interstate buses (think Greyhound) into the south to protest and draw attention to the non-enforcement of several Supreme Court decisions that declared intrastate segregated buses unconstitutional. Morgan v Virginia (1946) and Boynton v Virginia (1960) both ruled that segregation on public buses were unconstitutional. Boynton went further and declared that restaurants and waiting areas in bus terminals could not be segregated. By 1961, however, the federal government had failed, and in most cases, refused to enforce the rulings; southern states also refused to enforce the court’s decision. As there was no punishment, there was no incentive to change.
The Freedom Riders were young and planned to travel from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, Louisiana in May 1961 on a desegregated intrastate bus. They made it to Atlanta, Georgia without incident. But in Alabama, they were mobbed, beaten, and their bus was firebombed. Yes. For riding in a bus. With black and white passengers sitting together in the same seats. In Montgomery, Alabama police stood by while locals beat riders with baseball bats and iron pipes as they descended from the bus and tried to enter the terminal. The mob attacked reporters and photographers, destroying their cameras. That makes sense – destroy the evidence.
Bobby Kennedy was Attorney General and at that time, the Democratic Party was split into two factions. The more liberal wing that was supportive of civil rights and the southern were segregationists. What could go wrong? JFK was concerned that enforcement of these SCOTUS decisions would alienate the southern Democrats he would need for his re-elect. That political priority led to some really ridiculous negotiating positions. Buses were being firebombed with teenagers inside and the President of the United States and his Attorney General were trying to make a deal with the racist southern governor to ensure their safety as they crossed the border into his state.
But there’s an aspect of this history that was new to me. Something finally clicked. Where was the federal government? Why was the President negotiating with a southern governor over whether he – the governor – would enforce federal law? Why did Kennedy later have to deploy the national guard to southern states to enforce Supreme Court decisions?
The Reconstruction Amendments
If you’ve forgotten the detail on these, you can scroll up a bit for the definition. Congress passed these amendments and each state from the old confederacy was required to ratify as a condition to rejoin the Union. The exception was Mississippi; she did not ratify the 13th until modern times but had a state amendment outlawing slavery. There is a history behind each one, but taken together, they were meant to enlarge the electorate by enfranchising freedmen in the south.
The vote is critical to protecting one’s interest and thus, the 15th was expected to do just that for blacks in the south. The 14th then would protect the former slaves and their next generations from oppression, violence, and economic discrimination. However, when federal troops were removed, there was no enforcement mechanism. By 1900, blacks in the south were not only disfranchised, but routinely terrorized.
The federal government did nothing. In fact, when victims took to the courts, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the segregationists. I am not yet able to explain how and why this happened. I suspect that given lifetime tenure of the federal courts, it came down to a generational understanding and interpretation of the Constitution. It was not until the 1950s, and most notably Brown v Topeka Board of Education, that the Supreme Court began to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
But even then, the executive branch was slow to respond. Southern school boards came up with creative ways to avoid desegregation, and as I described in the case of intrastate busing – well, that industry just refused to do it. Blacks were routinely denied the right to vote, consistently failing ridiculous literacy tests. The Civil Rights Museum had an exhibit on literacy tests, one similar to those described in this Slate article. Those that tried to register were beaten or otherwise intimidated. Family members lost their jobs. And yet, nothing was done.
In northern and western states, black life was less violent, but economic inequality was prevalent. In my own home state of Kansas, and specifically where I grew up in nearby Lawrence, blacks were limited to certain residential areas. Housing was limited, and it was a given that fewer jobs existed. Those that did have jobs, were paid lower salaries than their white counterparts. Public pools were available only to whites and schools were by fact, if not by law, segregated. The state university was forced to integrate, albeit slowly, due to grassroots, interracial student activism. I read an account of the 1960s in Lawrence, Kansas several years ago, and was surprised to learn that racism was so prevalent in a state that fought so hard to enter the Union without the institution of slavery.
An African-American in 1970, could look at his or her community and history over the last century and have a much different perspective than someone that looked like my mother or father. By the late 60s and early 70s, the movement had entered a more militant phase. Middle-class Americans saw cities burning, police in riot gear, bomb scares or worse. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965; both meant to shore up and punish states for not enforcing the 14th and 15th amendments. Upon taking office, Nixon announced that all legal barriers to discrimination had been removed. Everyone was equal.
And then he started the war on drugs.
Why would I go to this museum if it’s just meant to make me feel guilty for being white? And why should I apologize for something that other people did 100 years ago?
No one told you to feel guilty and no one has asked you to apologize. But recognize that there are those among us that remember Emmitt Till’s murder or at the very least were alive when it happened. And even more of us took note of Carolyn Bryant’s admission that she lied. This year, the Department of Justice reopened the case citing new evidence.
Millions remember the Freedom Riders and the ensuing violence, Rosa Parks, MLK, and the events in Selma. Those that saw the protests on television, processed them in different ways. Within a single lifetime, someone could witness all the events I’ve described, plus the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They would be alive for Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Baltimore, and President Obama. All of these and more have been part of the civil rights struggle; and all of them have left an impression on those who witnessed them.
Racial disparity and discrimination should be “fixed” now, right? We passed anti-discriminatory laws including affirmative action and Title IX. Everybody is on board with equality, economic and social justice, voting rights, and all that other stuff in the Constitution, right? We all agree that we are good now, right?
Well of course not. We passed laws and expanded the scope of the federal government to insist that they be followed. Those laws, combined with state and federal programs meant to redress the economic and social imbalance brought on by centuries of discrimination and suppression, certainly helped open opportunities that had once been denied to people based on race. But to conclude that we have reached anything close to a panacea of full equality, or even that we have created the conditions for it, is to ignore white reaction to black progress. It is that reaction that I felt inside a museum in Jackson, Mississippi.
A mile in someone else’s shoes
Not everyone has the luxury of hopping on a plane just to spend a weekend in Jackson, Mississippi, visiting the new civil rights museum. If you can, do it. If you are planning a trip through the southeast, consider putting it on the itinerary (It may not be the best spot for younger kids. This museum is full of “reading” exhibits. Lots of images with written explainers). But the fight for civil rights was not isolated to the south. Certainly, the worst of the violence occurred in that region, but discrimination, suppression, and economic inequality happened coast to coast. It still happens. I suspect that there is a memorial or museum within a couple of hours from most of us. Find a museum and visit it on a free weekend.
Of course, there are always documentaries and my favorite – books. But whatever you choose, it’s important that you try to understand the topic, and in this case – racism and the struggle for civil rights – through the eyes of those who lived it (and in some cases, those who continue to live it). That is a benefit of a museum. I will never fully understand what it is like to be a person of color (and vice versa), but I do have a sense of what a 46-year-old black woman might think when she hears, “Make America Great Again.” It comes down to learning our whole history. American history through the eyes of a white woman is going to look different than through the eyes of a black man or Latino child. Same event, different interpretation.
If there is one thing I want to impress upon anyone reading this post, it is this: do not pass judgement on someone of color, or criticize their protest method because you find it inappropriate or you would not do it. Riots in Ferguson and Baltimore look a lot different once you understand the policing practices that had been in place for years prior to the police shooting that sparked the violence. Criticizing, or calling one un-American for kneeling during the national anthem to honor those black men and boys that have been killed by police may make perfect sense to someone who looks like me. But for black citizens whose experience with the police is completely different than my own, that form of protest makes perfect sense.
There are a ton of books on this topic. Here are two that I have read recently, plus a lengthy report on the history of lynching, published by the Equal Justice Initiative.
White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson
A Colony in a Nation, Chris Hayes
I’ll end with a statement: America has not been great, so it cannot be great again. But we have had many great people; citizens and non-citizens of all colors, races, ethnicities, and religions that have accomplished great things for their country. It’s the American People that can be great, in fact, as a whole, we’ve never stopped. But we need to be honest about the times – and the people – that have been truly horrible, and sometimes evil. We have to remember how bad we have been to stay focused on that long arc toward justice. It’s too easy to forget.