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Trump ignores backlash, visits Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and praises civil rights leaders

President Trump delivered remarks at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Dec. 9. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: KEVIN LAMARQUE/The Washington Post)

Amid backlash and boycotts, President Trump addressed an invitation-only gathering Saturday at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson — instead of attending the public opening ceremony.

The change in plans came after Trump’s plans to attend the opening of the museum, which honors civil rights martyrs, drew criticism from some who marched in the movement. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the opening, announced Thursday that he would boycott the stage at the public event if Trump were on it. Others called on Trump to change his plans and not attend the opening.

Lewis and other black leaders said the president's actions and statements since he took office contradicted the values of the civil rights leaders whom the museum was intended to honor. “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” Lewis and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a joint statement Thursday.

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On Friday, museum officials scrambled to accommodate both sides. They organized a private tour for the president — who was invited to the ceremony by Gov. Phil Bryant (R) — and arranged for him to address veterans of the cause in a private event in the auditorium of the Two Mississippi Museums complex — the civil rights museum and a museum of Mississippi history.

Trump spoke briefly Saturday, peering down frequently at prepared notes. He mentioned several civil rights leaders, including King and Medgar Evers.

“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,” he said.

“Today we pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past and dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice, peace.”

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On Saturday before Trump spoke, some Mississippi leaders and residents protested his visit. They gathered at an “alternative event” honoring Mississippi’s civil rights legacy.

“I think that the museum opening is a great demonstration of appreciation for a history that must be told,” said Chokwe Lumumba (D). “But the way to honor that story is a continuing commitment to the ideals on which the civil rights movement was founded.”

Lumumba emphasized that Trump’s legislative agenda and record do not demonstrate a commitment to civil rights.

“The martyrs of Mississippi who have died for our civil rights, for our progress, will not allow me to stand with Donald Trump,” Lumumba said.

Amos C. Brown, a civil rights activist who at 14 years old founded the NAACP’s first youth council, also boycotted Trump's visit.

“I'm very uncomfortable with his antics and policies on matters of race and justice,” Brown said. “And that’s why people felt, as I do, that his presence cheapened the occasion. It was a mockery for him to be present. He has not been involved at all in the struggle.”

On High Street, a few blocks from the new museum, about 100 demonstrators stood in a light snow and protested the president's presence in Mississippi.

Some put Confederate flag stickers over their mouths as a form of silent protest. Others chanted, “No hate in our state.” Others chanted “This is what democracy looks like” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has got to go.”

Many carried signs. One read, “There’s nothing civil or right about Donald Trump.”

“I think it’s very hypocritical of Donald Trump to be here,” said Gladys Bunzy, a Jackson native. “He doesn’t care about civil rights. He doesn’t care about human rights. He doesn’t care about the rights of women, and he doesn’t care about the rights of people of color. For him to be in the state of Mississippi, which has the worst civil rights record in the history of America, it's a slap in the face. He should not be here.”

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After the president left, many demonstrators headed down the street to the museum's official opening ceremony, where a crowd of hundreds was gathered.

Volunteers at a check-in table for “civil rights veterans” said over 100 such people had registered in advance. They were given special seating during the official speeches. Those speeches contained little talk of the president's visit.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, implored people to visit the Two Mississippi Museums, home to an exhibit telling the story of Evers's assassination in his driveway by a Klan member waiting in honeysuckle bushes across the street from their home. The Enfield rifle used to shoot Evers is on exhibit at the Civil Rights Museum.

“I stand before you today and say I believe in the state of my birth. That is something I never thought I would say. In going through the museums, I had a better understanding of the state of Mississippi,” Evers-Williams said. “Going through the museums, I wept because I felt the blows, I felt the bullets, I felt the tears, I felt the cries. But I also sensed the hope that dwelt in all those people.”

Evers-Williams said that regardless of race, creed or color, “we are all Americans. If Mississippi can rise to the occasion, then the rest of the country should be able to do the same things. We in America are still suffering from the same ills. It is left to each one of us ... and to those who hear our voices ... that you will realize that freedom is not free. It is people coming together.”

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Paula Barksdale, a Jackson native, flew from her home in Texas to attend the opening. Barksdale grew up next door to Evers and remembers waking up as a child to the sound of the shot that killed him.

She described the museum's opening as “just awesome,” but she had mixed feelings about the president's attendance.

“I think it's kind of good that he came,” Barksdale said. “But actually, no, I don't think that. Nobody saw him. He wasn't going to affect my decision to come either way.”

The Two Mississippi Museums complex was designed as a place for “Mississippians to tell their own stories of the state’s rich and complex history,” museum officials said. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focuses on the years between 1945 and 1976, and the Museum of Mississippi History tracks the state’s history from “the Stone Age” through the present. Both museums, which are connected under one roof, are financed by state funds and private donations.

Mississippi has an ugly racial history.

It is the state where 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed Aug. 28, 1955, by a white mob that tied barbed wire and a gin fan around his neck and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. It is the state where three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — trying to register voters in the Mississippi Summer Project, were ambushed then killed on June 21, 1964, near the town of Philadelphia, Miss., in a case the FBI would call “Mississippi Burning.” A film by the same name focused on the brutal murders.

The museum, which exhibits slave chains, Ku Klux Klan robes and photographs of lynchings, also tells the story of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret spy organization dedicated to preserving racial segregation. Its objective was to “do and perform any and all acts deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states” from perceived “encroachment thereon by the Federal Government or any branch, department or agency thereof,” according to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “The Commission investigated individuals and organizations that challenged the racial status quo.”

The Sovereignty Commission story is told in the “I Question America” gallery.

An entire wall of one gallery in the museum displays mug shots of Freedom Riders, hundreds of people who defied threats from segregationists and traveled into the Deep South on buses and trains to confront the state’s Jim Crow laws and segregated public facilities. Freedom Riders were often met at bus stations by white mobs and brutally beaten. Buses were firebombed.

In June 1963, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and other colleagues were beaten in a jail in Winona, Miss., after returning from a voter registration workshop. Hamer, who suffered permanent injury, recounted the beating during a televised speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

“I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush,” Hamer told a captivated audience. “One white man — my dress had worked up high — he walked over and pulled my dress. I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.”

The Mississippi Bicentennial Choir sang gospel hymns as the crowd moved toward a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the museum's entrance. Mississippi will celebrate the 200th anniversary of its statehood Sunday.

Around 1 p.m. Saturday, long lines formed as the museum finally opened its doors. Tickets have been sold out for months into the future, officials said.

Al White of Duck Hill, Miss., waited outside the museum with his 12-year-old daughter for their turn to enter. White, who drove an hour and a half Saturday to attend the ceremony, said he thinks the museum is especially important for the youth of Mississippi. “I think this is a good first step,” he said. “A chance to move in a different direction.”

Ashley Cusick in Jackson contributed to this report.