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Two New Museums Tell Mississippi's Story


Work crews set up a stage beside the new Museum of Mississippi History and the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, December 7, in Jackson, Mississippi.

The southern U.S. state of Mississippi turns 200 years old on Sunday.

The day before, the state will open two museums that examine its history. The museums are in Jackson, the state capital. They aim to tell Mississippi’s past clearly and honestly, even when the stories are ugly.

The Museum of Mississippi History takes the long view, 15,000 years from the Stone Age until modern times. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum targets a shorter -- and intense -- period from 1945 to 1976.

Katie Blount is director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

“We are telling a much longer story in the Museum of Mississippi History, a much deeper story in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum,” Blount said. “We want everybody to walk in one door, side by side, to learn all of our state’s stories.”

In this Nov. 10, 2017 image, a monolith listing the names, dates and rationale for the lynching of African-American residents rests in the foreground of a photograph of a burning Ku Klux Klan cross on display in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
In this Nov. 10, 2017 image, a monolith listing the names, dates and rationale for the lynching of African-American residents rests in the foreground of a photograph of a burning Ku Klux Klan cross on display in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The general history museum presents Native American culture, European settlement, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. It examines natural disasters, including the Mississippi River flood in 1927 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It also has pop culture pieces, such as the jeweled headpiece worn by Mary Ann Mobley, the first Mississippian to win the Miss America competition.

The opening comes at the end of a year of events to honor the state’s 200th anniversary. Some events this year celebrated Mississippi’s success at producing influential writers and musicians, such as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, B.B. King and Elvis Presley. Others took a critical look slavery and segregation.

President Donald Trump plans to attend the opening of the two new museums, a White House official said Monday.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Trump supporter, invited the president to the opening. The president of the civil rights group Mississippi NAACP has asked Bryant to withdraw the invitation.

And the group’s state chapter president, Charles Hampton, said, “An invitation to a president that has aimed to divide this nation is not becoming of this historic moment.”

A state divided by its flag

Mississippi is one of the nation’s poorest states. Its population is 59 percent white and 38 percent black. The state is sharply divided by one of its best-known symbols; it is the last state with a flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem. All eight public universities, as well as several cities and counties, have stopped flying it in recent years.

None of the flags fly outside the new museums.

In this Nov. 10, 2017 image, Ellie Dahmer, foreground, wife of Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, who was killed in 1966 by the Ku Klux Klan, their daughter Bettie Dahmer, and an older brother Harold, right at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
In this Nov. 10, 2017 image, Ellie Dahmer, foreground, wife of Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, who was killed in 1966 by the Ku Klux Klan, their daughter Bettie Dahmer, and an older brother Harold, right at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Ellie Dahmer is the wife of former civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer, who was murdered by the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan in 1966. She said the flag represents an unapologetic defense of slavery. She expressed wonder over the existence of the civil rights museum in a state that will not change its flag.

One display in the civil rights museum tells about the KKK firebombing of the Dahmer home outside Hattiesburg. Vernon Dahmer had announced he would pay poll taxes for black people registering to vote. He fired back at Klansmen who were shooting at his burning house. The family escaped, but Vernon Dahmer died from his burns. The couple’s 10-year-old daughter was also severely burned.

Parts of the Dahmers’ bullet-damaged truck are in the museum, along with photographs.

The Mississippi museum joins several like it in the country: the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee; the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., opened 2016.

Confronting the past 'unflinchingly'

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is a 49-year-old Mississippi native and chairman of African American Studies at Princeton University. He called Mississippi “ground zero” for the civil rights movement. He said it is meaningful that the state presents an honest report of its history.

“America can’t really turn a corner with regard to its racist and violent past and present until the South, and particularly a state like Mississippi, confronts it — and confronts it unflinchingly,” Glaude said.

In the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, columns list some 600 documented lynchings — most of them of black men. One gallery’s ceiling is covered with racist advertising images from the past.

Ku Klux Klan robes are also on display. So are mug shots of black and white Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson in 1961 for protesting segregation on buses.

A large display tells the story of Emmett Till. In 1955, the 14-year-old black boy was visiting Money, Mississippi. While there, he interacted with a white woman in a store. The interaction angered the woman’s husband. Four days later, he and another family member kidnapped and beat the child to death.

In this Nov. 10, 2017 photo, work crews and archivists are putting the final touches to "This Little Light of Mine," gallery, a soaring space in the heart of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson, Miss.
In this Nov. 10, 2017 photo, work crews and archivists are putting the final touches to "This Little Light of Mine," gallery, a soaring space in the heart of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson, Miss.

The central gallery of the civil rights museum also provides a hopeful moment. A nine-meter-tall structure lights up as a soundtrack plays the folk song “This Little Light of Mine.” As more visitors enter, more voices join the chorus and more lights come on.

The display represents the power of people working together to bring about change.​

I’m Alice Bryant. And I'm Phil Dierking.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

anonymity –n. the quality or state of being unknown to most people : the quality or state of being anonymous

symbol –n. an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

emblem –n. an object or picture used to suggest a thing that cannot be shown

confront –v. to deal with (something) in an honest and direct way

unflinching –adj. looking at or describing something or someone in a very direct way

lynching –n. illegal execution by mob action, usually by hanging

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