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This Little Light of Mine

Two Museums. One Mississippi, December 9, 2017.

 

By Julian Rankin

Photographs by Marianne Todd

 

When a young Pamela Junior attended segregated Jackson schools in the 1960s, she shared a cramped classroom with students from first through tenth grades. When the teacher gave the older students their lessons, Junior listened and gleaned what knowledge she could. Her passion for learning and her career of truth-telling equipped her to lead the new opening Mississippi Civil Rights Museum as few can. A Jackson native, Junior has devoted her life to educating the community about the voices of the Movement, most recently as the director of Jackson’s Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center.  

 

Junior was an extremely shy child. Incessant bullying made her timid. But at home, she was an actress. She wanted to be in front of the crowd. The stories gave her strength to step forward. Stories by luminaries like Richard Wright, whose writing she fell in love with at 10 years old. She’d gone to the black library in west Jackson and asked the librarian, “Do you have any books on black people from Mississippi?” The lady took her over to the stacks. “Right here,” the librarian said. “I want you to read Black Boy.”

 

“I was just thirsting,” says Junior. “Wanting to know this knowledge about history and black folks. And to be the director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is an honor for me. An honor for me to be here and to get children excited about the history.”

 

Next door to the Civil Rights Museum, in the Museum of Mississippi History, the clock is three and one-eighth inches wide and one and five-eighths inches tall. A small brass cylinder, the top slides open to reveal the clock face, frozen in time at nine o’clock and thirty-five seconds. It belonged to Edmond Boudreaux, who had been a member of the Community Advisory Committee for the Museum of Mississippi History since 1998. He retrieved it from his demolished Biloxi home in 2005, after the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina rose up and stopped the hands. “It makes me want to cry,” says Lucy Allen, Director of the Museums Division for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), who project-directed the agency’s ambitious 2 Mississippi Museums initiative.” Edmond called a few days after the storm, Allen recalls. “We’ve lost everything,” he said. “But I have some artifacts I want to give you because you have to tell this story.”

 

As the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum open in conjunction with the state’s bicentennial, they are not just marking history, but making it. The state-managed project has been an immense undertaking by countless committed Mississippians. It is the culmination of nearly two decades of planning and $90 million in public and private investment. It has garnered support from four Mississippi governors, guidance from an advisory council representing more than 20 cultural, ethnic and religious groups and expertise from a consortium of three Jackson architecture firms, enabling the museums to tell 15,000 years of triumphant and turbulent history through artifacts and voices large and small.

 

The museum buildings, located in the heart of downtown Jackson, are physical manifestations of reconciliation. They share an entrance, a lobby, a history and an unflinching commitment to doing justice to Mississippi’s rich and complicated past. “When these two museums open, the eyes of the world will be on Mississippi,” said Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “People will see that we're telling our own stories, through our own voices, and that we're telling these stories in all their complexity, shying away from nothing. Thousands of voices have been contributed to these stories. We have built these two museums together, and we're proud of it. And that's a powerful and positive message for Mississippi to share with the world on the occasion of our bicentennial.”

 

“Welcome to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, where you walk in awed and walk out changed,” says Junior. Her dedication has been rewarded, but she recognizes the challenge ahead. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first state-funded Civil Rights museum in the country, confronts viewers with unadulterated and often painful truth. Standing sentry at the museum’s entrance is an enormous wall-sized photograph of a young black child taken during Freedom Summer 1964, an initiative to register black voters that became a pivotal point in the Movement. The boy, Jerry Oatis, looks down with a fierce, unbroken gaze beneath a 1958 quote from Medgar Evers: “There’s something out here that I’ve got to do for my kids, and I’m not going to stop until I’ve done it.”

 

Some of the more difficult moments in the Civil Rights Museum address lynching, murder and assassination. A jail cell. A partially burned church. An experiential space where an unseen racist voice warns visitors to step off the sidewalk when they see a white woman approaching. These moments force confrontation with the past, further contextualized by powerful artifacts like the screen door from Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Mississippi, where justice was obscured after the torture and killing of Emmett Till, and the rifle that Byron De La Beckwith used to assassinate Medgar Evers. Earlier in the tour, visitors will have seen a photograph of a teenage Medgar Evers in military uniform, preparing to serve his country. Like so many other African Americans, he returned from heroic action in the European Theater (Evers fought at the Battle of Normandy in 1944) to find the ideals of the nation he sacrificed for withheld from him and his brethren – like the right to vote.

 

The Movement is given local color through the voices of homegrown change makers, like activist Charles McLaurin, who helped lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration in Sunflower County in 1962 alongside icons like Fannie Lou Hamer and Charlie Cobb. “We’re gonna start in Ruleville,” McLaurin’s quote reads, “because these folks will stand up. And we’re gonna change Sunflower County. We’re gonna light a lamp in Ruleville, and it’s gonna shine all over the Delta.”

 

“You’re going to need to breathe,” says Junior as she exits one of the immersive spaces into the central, vaulted gallery, titled “This Little Light of Mine.” Natural light pours in from large exterior windows, with a dramatic 37-foot-tall sculpture in the middle of the room. When just a few visitors gather around the sculpture, “those lights will flicker a little bit,” Junior says. “More people, the lights will start dancing.” At first, the voices of children will start singing “This Little Light of Mine.” As the crowd grows, so too does the volume, a subtle chorus blooming into a heavenly choir.

Across the lobby, on the north side of the building in Gallery One of the Museum of Mississippi History, visitors venture deep into the Mississippi woods, encountering a massive 500-year-old Native American dugout canoe, a vehicle for travel that sets the tone for the journey to come. Exhibits open with a series of films, set in a darkened virtual forest around a campfire. As the flames flicker, smoke rises and a series of screens begin the Mississippi story. Walk along the Natchez Trace and retrace the footfalls of the state’s earliest stakeholders. Reach out and touch the cross-section of a ceremonial mound. At junctures like these, “Explore Mississippi” panels encourage visitors to seek out sites across the state – like Emerald Mound or the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. “We’re hoping to be an outpost,” says Rachel Myers, director of the Museum of Mississippi History. “People will come here and get a taste for the sites and then go see the real thing.” 

 

 In one of three thematic breakout galleries, the museum juxtaposes this history with contemporary stories of the thriving Native American tribal traditions in Mississippi and Oklahoma.

From the second-floor overlook of the Museum of Mississippi History, one can see the entire spread of the state’s 20th century history galleries below. At the far end of the space, a collage of faces composes a giant outline of Mississippi, overlaid with the text, “One Mississippi. Many stories.” This theme permeates the museum, in wall text and object labels and multimedia interactives, including the final gallery, Reflections, where visitors are prompted to record their own stories, some of which will be showcased in a continuously changing selection of collective memory. Many of the voices in the museum come from the state’s extensive archives. “These are women and immigrants and Native Americans and enslaved people,” says Rachel Myers. “Voices that haven’t necessarily been elevated in the past.” Voices like Betsy Love Allen, a Chickasaw woman who argued in court that Chickasaw custom allowed women to own property even though it was prohibited under American law, and whose case resulted in the passage of the 1839 Married Women’s Property Act, the first in the nation to bestow property rights to married women. Or Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, a nobleman kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery. Or Vera Anderson who worked at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula when she won the National Women’s Welding Championship in 1943.

 

The Herculean feat of planning and building these museums has taken a generation. Not long after the state began discussing the Museum of Mississippi History – which predated plans for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum – a group of architecture firms prepared for the task by forming ECD Architects & Engineers: a Joint Venture. Eley Guild Hardy, Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons and Dale Partners collaborated in myriad capacities through the conception, design and construction phases. When the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum came online in 2011, renowned architect Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will soon followed; his prior work includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Washington, D.C. Mall.

 

The team of architects collaborated with a slew of other designers, fabricators and technology engineers from around the country: exhibit designers The Design Minds on the History side and Hilferty and Associates for the Civil Rights exhibits; 1220 Exhibits and Exhibits Concepts fabricated the History and Civil Rights exhibits, respectively; audio/visual specialists Northern Light Productions and Monadnock Media; Thrash Commercial Contractors; and others. For the individuals at these firms and companies, it was as much about pouring their passion into the project as it was about pouring concrete. 

 

“The museums mean a lot to our family,” says Chris Myers of Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons. “When MDAH broke ground on the museums, my wife Rachel and I were there for the ceremony. It was an important moment for our state and our city, and we wanted to witness it. Five years later, I'm the project architect on-site several times a week, and she's sitting in the director's office of the Museum of Mississippi History.” He calls the project “one of the greatest investments our state has ever made to its future.” (Years ago, before Rachel was director, she remembers Chris poring over plans spread out on the dining room table and agonizing late into the night over design decisions about interior staircases.)

 

“I’m proud to have my name associated with this project,” says Russ Blount of Dale Partners. “I can only hope that this building stands the test of time so that I can continue to see it as I drive into town for a long time to come, thinking back on the years I spent with all the people who helped to make it happen. As an architect, I see buildings as a place for people and an opportunity to tell a story.”

 

Having worked on his prescribed piece of the project, Duane Landes of Exhibits Concepts looks forward to experiencing the full story as a visitor. “When we are immersed in a project … it’s easy to get tunnel vision,” he says. But even when they were in the weeds of the full-bore production schedule, Landes felt the importance of his contribution. “As you can imagine, the experience of working on a story like the Civil Rights and the continued struggle of America to understand what it means, stirs deeply in our hearts and minds.”

 

“The Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum are world-class facilities that will make our state stronger and better,” adds Governor Phil Bryant. “Everyone involved in making these projects a reality should be proud of their efforts.”

 

The directors hope that every school child, at some point in their K-12 career, will tour these museums. At the very least, they will leave with the knowledge that Mississippi did hard work on their behalf; the work of telling the truth. Rachel Myers thinks about her young son, Eli. “I’m so excited for Eli to grow up in a place knowing that this is always how we talk about Mississippi history. That Jackson always had a Civil Rights museum. He’ll always know that the state committed the amount of time and energy and resources to preserving and presenting this history. A lot of kids can’t say that.”

 

Michael Morris is a lifelong resident of Jackson, who now works in the public information office at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Young professionals of his generation came through school without such a visible and comprehensive resource as the Civil Rights Museum. “I am looking forward to finally honoring the brave individuals who, under very difficult circumstances, challenged our state – and the nation – to recognize the dignity and rights of all its citizens.”

 

Words from Oseola McCarty conclude the Civil Rights Museum experience: “If you want to be proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of.”  Mississippians should be proud of what has happened here. Proud of all the people, of every stripe, background, color and creed, who made it happen.

 

As these museums were toured a few months from opening day, artifacts were still being installed. Work crews were everywhere, drilling and measuring and hammering. As they worked, one crew had a radio tuned to a classic rock station. Cheap Trick’s 1979 single was strangely juxtaposed against an exhibit on the life and death of Vernon Dahmer.

 

 

 

“I want you to want me … ”

 

Dahmer, a Civil Rights leader and President of the Forrest County chapter of the NAACP in Hattiesburg, was light-skinned. He could have passed for white, but he chose otherwise. He fought, as a black man, for the rights of those whose humanity had been rendered second-class.

 

“I need you to need me…”

 

For his voter registration efforts, he was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, who attacked his home and set it ablaze with gasoline. Dahmer returned fire with his shotgun, kept the KKK at bay and helped his wife and daughter escape. He later died from burns and smoke inhalation. Shrapnel taken from his bullet-holed pickup truck sits under glass. A mural-sized graphic shows Dahmer’s four grown sons still dressed in their military uniforms, standing at the edge of their charred family home. They had all been away serving in the military on the night of the attack. 

 

“Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I see you crying?”

 

These lyrics, from an upbeat tune by a band from Rockford, Illinois, with no connection to Mississippi, suddenly took on new meaning. History was piled up atop itself, its fragments and threads inseparable and intertwined. Every single second from thousands of years of past tick-tocked across time in unison. Like a heartbeat. Or a call to action. An invitation to stand and be counted. Count with me.

 

One Mississippi …

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