Half a century ago, they risked everything, suffering threats and beatings to win the battle for civil rights in Mississippi. But now Frankye Adams-Johnson and Flonzie Brown Wright find themselves on opposite sides of a decision about whether to attend Saturday’s opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
It was President Trump who divided them. Although veterans of the civil rights movement and state officials had worked for more than a decade to make the museum a reality, Trump announced just five days before its opening that he would attend the inaugural ceremony in Jackson, the state capital.
On Friday, two congressmen, Jackson’s mayor and a slew of movement veterans added themselves to the list of people who are refusing to attend the opening because of Trump’s presence.
“I’m not going to be that kind of a Negro woman sitting there while that bigot stands up there,” said Adams-Johnson, who was a student at Tougaloo College in 1964 when she joined with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to conduct voter registration drives in a place where poll taxes and other barriers had prevented most blacks from voting.
“We were not out there playacting, so we’re not going to pretend now that we’re all getting along, especially with this man who’s against all of us,” she said. “It’s just too painful.”
But Wright, who became the first black woman elected to public office in Mississippi since Reconstruction, said she has decided to attend despite “terrible mixed emotions.
“My picture’s in the museum, and I know how much hard work has gone into it,” she said. “But it’s hard, because to have as the honored guest a gentleman who questioned the authenticity of the first African American president is insulting.”
Officially, the opening ceremony for the museum, which was built with $90 million in state money, is unchanged, with the civil rights movement veterans to be arrayed in the front row, at the center of attention.
But several of the veterans said Friday that they had been assured that Trump’s role at the opening was being downgraded from an address to the assembled crowd on the plaza outside the museum to a few remarks delivered to a small invited group inside the building.
A spokesman for the museum said, however, that no change had been made in the program.
According to a program released by the office of Gov. Phil Bryant (R), the speakers at the opening ceremony will be eight elected officials and former governors, all of them white Republican men.
“We spent years brainstorming for a museum, and so much of my history is embedded there,” Adams-Johnson said. “But it got co-opted by the state and a racist governor who’s bringing a racist president there.”
Despite the museum management’s efforts to portray the opening as relatively unaffected by Trump’s presence, the opening program has indeed been significantly altered.
The keynote speaker was to have been Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the last surviving leaders of the movement, but Lewis pulled out, saying that Trump’s “hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of assassinated Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, said that she still plans to speak and that she expects to address Trump’s presence in her remarks.
The ceremony, which is open to the public, is also expected to draw hundreds of protesters, some of whom said they plan to take a knee or stand in silence. Several groups of Trump supporters also said they now plan to attend the opening, in tribute to the president.
“I’ve been tear-gassed and I’ve had the lives of my children threatened,” said Wright, who in 1968 won the position of election commissioner in Madison County, Miss., monitoring the votes that she once was forbidden to take part in. Mississippi is a red state.
“So I am not happy to have a president who is trying to roll back everything we fought for. But my parents taught me to overlook the people who don’t know that they don’t know, and to look for the greater good. So that is what I am trying to do.”