Jackson, Mississippi will serve as a haven to conjoined museums dedicated to telling the truth about the Southern state's darkest days and promising future. While the new Museum of History will chronicle the history of indigenous people to slavery to present day Mississippi, the Civil Rights Museum will document the state’s turbulent struggle with equality and efforts to progress to better days in the future. EBONY sat down with Civil Rights legend Myrlie Evers and Lucy Allen, director of the Museum Division of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, to discuss.
EBONY: When was the idea for these two museums first conceived?
Lucy Allen: In the mid-1990s, we knew we needed to plan to build a state history museum. So, in 1998, we were given some funding by the legislature to plan to build the state history museum through construction documents. We got those construction documents completed in 2004, but there wasn’t any money to continue on with the project. In 2010, we started to get this project off of the ground again. We started thinking about the combination of having a Civil Rights museum as well. Originally, we were only going to have the Civil Rights story in prominent exhibits inside the Museum of Mississippi History. But, in January 2011, the legislature voted to approve funding for the Civil Rights Museum in addition to the Museum of Mississippi History. We decided to build it together so we could have some shared operations to help save on the costs of construction.
EBONY: Mississippi was a breeding ground for segregationist views before the Civil Rights Movement. It has been well documented that the state has a checkered past as it relates to race relations. What made you decide to become involved with the plans for the two museums?
Myrlie Evers: I think it was quite easy. It started some years ago when I gave Medgar’s papers to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and that’s where they’re residing at this time. I think it’s critically important that not only Mississippians, but people around the world know the history of Mississippi. The negatives as well as positives, and what the state can potentially become. It is a great opportunity to spread this knowledge. I’m excellently delighted to know that we’re moving forward in this expansion of knowledge. I’m a native Mississippian. I’m living back in the state and I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Medgar that I couldn’t understand at the time he said it. Medgar often said that Mississippi could be one of the best places in the nation to live once we worked through the problems of prejudice and racism. When he would say that, I would ask him later how he could possibly say that. He would say, “It’s my native state.” And I would say, “It’s mine too and I just don’t see what you see.” After all this time, I’ve finally come to understand what he was saying. Medgar gave his life so Mississippi could become a better place. Today, I see hope and a chance for Mississippi to rise to become one of the best places to live.
EBONY: Who were some of the key figures who made this project finally happen?
LA: The Mississippi legislature was the ones to help make this happen. Former Governor Haley Barbour was the one who came up with the idea of putting these buildings together and getting them funded at exactly the same time. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History is the agency I work for and it’ll be the agency that’ll be administering these two museums.
EBONY: What is the projected date for the opening of these two museums?
LA: The legislature charged us with opening the two museums for our bicentennial year, which is 2017. We became a state on December 10, 1817. So — we actually have the whole year of 2017 should we need it. We are hoping to have them completed by the summer of 2016. We will get our exhibits installed at that point and allow for a period of time for off-gassing and then be able to move our collections, staff, and other things in there at the beginning of 2017. Closer to 2017, we will pick a ribbon cutting date, but we can’t zero in on that just yet until we get the project started and to make sure we can stay on target with all the construction.
EBONY: How will these museums showcase the history of Mississippi and, in particular, the part you and your husband Medgar Evers had in changing the trajectory of the state’s views toward people of color?
ME: I’m not certain of how they’ll display our accomplishments, but I know we have very talented people who are working on the designs, galleries, and all the integral parts that will highlight those known and unknown individuals in Mississippi who have contributed to its growth and development. I’m just very pleased to have my voice heard and to work with people who are interested in getting a true picture of Mississippi’s history out to visitors from across the world. Some twenty years ago, I’d posed the question to a few civic leaders that we should have a Civil Rights Museum here. That recommendation wasn’t looked upon favorably at the time. I attempted to stimulate interest by saying how much a financial and social impact that museums could have on a state and it could be a great success. Well, it took some time, but here we are now. I can’t say I’m the only person to propose such an idea, but the fact that we’re at this point speaks to the progress the state has made in terms of being honest about its history. This museum is going to speak to what Mississippi was, is, and everything that happened between to get us to this point and challenge people to grow from this point forward. We’ve made great strides in this state and I’m pleased to serve on the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum scholar committee.
EBONY: What are some of the exhibits and memorabilia that are going to be highlighted in the Civil Rights Museum?
LA: We have eight galleries in the exhibits area. In the heart of these galleries is a gallery called This Little Light of Mine. It is the center portion and all the other galleries are like spokes of a wheel where you go into and out of from this central gallery. There is a large sculpture in the middle of this two story structural gallery, which has a light motif to it. When one person comes toward the sculpture, it will light up, and if more people join in with others, then more lights come on. The theme for the galleries of the Civil Rights Museum is everyone has a light to shine and when you come together for a common cause, your light shines brighter.
We have a difficult story to tell. Most of the galleries deal with those difficulties. We’re going to have three theaters that talk about the murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. Our whole theme in this museum is we hope that as people walk toward the end of the gallery they start to think about racial reconciliation and how we might get to that point in our society. It’s going to be a really interactive experience.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.