President Donald Trump will visit Jackson, Mississippi, on Saturday for the dedication of a new museum honoring the heroes of the civil rights movement.
But the plan for him to speak publicly at the opening ceremony so repulsed many who see him as a divisive figure on civil rights—triggering calls for protests and a boycott by several prominent civil rights leaders—that organizers scrambled Friday to arrange for the president to speak at a private program instead.
“Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
The opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-supported civil rights museum in the United States, should be an occasion of pride and celebration for Mississippians. It will tell the story of that state’s civil rights martyrs, people like Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer and James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, whose defiance in the face of injustice and inequality half a century ago helped to transform the state and the country.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and an icon of the civil rights era who worked in Mississippi during the movement and had been scheduled to speak, as well as Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson have said they will not attend the opening. It’s unclear if they have changed their positions after the announcement that Trump would not speak.
In a joint statement, they said, “Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
President Trump’s actions during his first year in office demonstrate that he represents just the opposite of what a museum like this stands for. He is, after all, no friend of civil rights.
Trump famously failed to denounce white supremacists in the wake of the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots, has earned the support of former KKK leader David Duke, and repeatedly calls for the firing of athletes who kneel during NFL games in protest of police shootings.
The nation’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum covers the struggle from 1945 to 1976, when Mississippi was ground zero for the national movement.
Lewis and Thompson said Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and NFL players disrespect the efforts of those who gave their lives to make Mississippi a better place. They urged Mississippians and Americans to visit the museum after the president leaves.
And former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus, who also is skipping the dedication, said that while the museum should be a celebration of hard-won progress on civil rights, Trump, its main speaker, is actively attacking that progress and turning us back to the dark days of hatred and division.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who has his own checkered history on civil rights, invited Trump to attend the opening. Bryant, a Republican, who last year declared April Confederate Heritage Month, has made no effort to direct legislative action to change the state’s flag, which is the only state that still incorporates the Confederate battle standard in its official flag.
Both the national NAACP and its Mississippi chapter asked the president to consider not going.
CNN also reported that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who will accompany Trump, urged the president to attend the ceremony, saying he believed it would help bring the country together.
One of the ceremony’s guests and speakers is expected to be Myrlie Evers-Williams, the 84-year-old widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered by a white supremacist in 1963.
The rifle used to kill Evers will be on display in the museum. Evers, who also dedicated her late husband’s papers to the state archives, told the New York Times that she hopes in coming that Trump learns something and that she hopes to address his attendance when she speaks.
Both the national NAACP and its Mississippi chapter asked the president to consider not going, calling his presence “an affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement.”
Corey Wiggins, the executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, also plans to duck the event. He said this ceremonial blemish will only be a temporary distraction, as social progress inevitably moves forward, just as it did in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.
“Gov. Bryant should not have invited Trump,” Wiggins said. “The policies of this president go against everything that the civil rights struggle tried to accomplish, in terms of his justice department rolling back voting rights and now this recent tax reform, which will hit hardest upon middle-class families,”
But this drama, he said, “is just a kind of continuation—a sort of reflection—of the successes and disappointments of that period of time.”
Ultimately, Wiggins said, this blotch in an otherwise proud moment gives America a chance to think about the civil rights movement and how we continue to fight for our rights today.
“Whether folks decide to attend or not, it’s my hope that they keep the focus on the folks who fought in the movement and what those folks stood for,” he said.
Updated Dec. 8, 2017 to reflect the decision, after public outcry, to not have President Trump address the opening of the museum. Adam Lynch contributed reporting for this story.
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.