Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

John C. Henegan

Article by John C. Henegan Featured Author


“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Recently, while we were in New Orleans, my wife and I visited during breakfast with a young woman from San Francisco who had just finished a business trip in New Orleans. She told us that she was staying over an extra three days and going on a self-guided civil rights tour through Montgomery, Birmingham, Oxford, and Jackson before returning to New Orleans and flying back to San Francisco. She had planned to do this for some time. Hearing about the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in December 2017 had spurred her to extend her stay and take her “side trip” before going home. The conversation made me think that perhaps the proponents of building the museum who said that it would promote tourism in Mississippi were correct.

On a recent Saturday, I looked on the museum’s web site for its hours, regular and special exhibits, announcements, eating facilities, gift shop, admission price, parking, etc. https://mcrm.mdah.ms.gov.

I learned there are five special films on display every hour, including films about Emmitt Till, Medgar Wiley Evers, and the Freedom Summer murder victims — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Two of the five films, all developed exclusively for the Museum, have won national awards. https://mcrm.mdah.ms.gov/news.

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History also has a special exhibit open until October 14 of over 30 beautiful quilts – each one handmade between 1830 and 2014 and given to MDAH since it was established by the State Legislature. https://mcrm.mdah.ms.gov/exhibits/special-exhibits.

Significant corporate contributions continue to come in to the museum. Toyota recently gave $750,000 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Toyota Corolla plant in Northeast Mississippi, which has announced that it is adding 400 more jobs at the plant. Also, for the rest of the year, Entergy — in recognition of its 95th birthday in Mississippi — donated monies to the Museum that will enable the first 95 people who enter each day for the rest of the year to be admitted free unless they are part of a tour group of 10 or more.

Rather than take the Web site’s directions to the Museum, I took the Pearl Street exit off I-55 South and headed down the left exit ramp to Jefferson Street rather going over the bridge to South State Street. At Jefferson, I turned right and after two blocks entered the parking garage under the William Winter Building. The parking is free, and the museum plaza is accessible by stairs and elevators. I walked up the outdoor stair case to the ample plaza, where ornamental juniper, pampas grass, and crepe myrtle welcome the eye. From there it was a short walk to the main entrance of the Civil Rights Museum and the History Museum.

The Civil Rights Museum has eight galleries, with seven arms radiating from a central circular room. https://mcrm.mdah.ms.gov/exhibits/galleries. The first gallery is the exclusive entrance into the exhibit area. It leads you around its walls to the adjacent gallery on the left rather than into the center gallery. This is somewhat counterintuitive but makes sense as you tour the museum. The map available at the front desk of the building offers the best layout of the galleries including the sites where the five films are being shown. Pick one up when you enter.

The radiating galleries are arranged chronologically so that you move clockwise around the center. The central gallery has a generous seating area for people who want a break from walking through the arms of the museum. The central gallery also has music and multiple images, special drawings, and quotes from leaders of the civil rights movement on its circular walls.

The names of the galleries in the order that they appear on the museum map and a thumbnail description of what they cover follow:

  1. Mississippi Freedom Struggle — a historical overview of slavery in North America and the historical context of the Civil War.
  2. Mississippi in Black and White — covers the period of black codes, Reconstruction, the enactment of laws disenfranchising black adult males, Jim Crow laws, and the rise and decline of the Ku Klux Klan.
  3. This Little Light of Mine — features music and a place to rest your feet.
  4. A Closed Society — covers the country’s entry into World War II, when Black Mississippians served in the U.S. armed forces fighting to secure the freedoms for others in foreign lands only to come home to a nation and a state still holding fast to Jim Crow as well as the response of the country to Brown v. Board of Education, the establishment of the White Citizens Council in the Deep South, and the State Sovereignty Commission by the Mississippi Legislature.
  5. A Tremor in the Iceberg — covers the civil rights movement from 1960 until the middle of 1963 beginning with the Jackson Public Library sit-in by the Tougaloo College Nine, the arrival of the Freedom Riders in Jackson by bus, rail, and plane, the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss, and the assassination of Medgar Evers, NAACP state field leader, on June 12, 1963, with extensive information about events in McComb, Jackson, Canton, and Clarksdale.
  6. I Question America — covers the last half of 1963 and Freedom Summer of 1964 including events in McComb, Jackson, Holmes County, Canton, Philadelphia, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
  7. Black Empowerment — covers the 1965 challenge to the seating of Mississippi’s congressional delegation and the adoption of the Voting Rights Act to the early 1970’s black leaders running Head Start programs and being elected to the State legislature.
  8. Where Do We Go From Here? This feature offers contemporary reflections from a variety of voices about the progress we have made and the challenges that remain.

The amount of graphic information in narrative and pictorial form that visitors encounter when walking through the radiating galleries is staggering, not even accounting for the films and interactive multi-media displays. One way to deal with this is to pick a subject such as segregation, voting rights, education, or economics and a person or city or county and follow them throughout the galleries or you may want to focus on one era and one gallery at a time. The vast majority will be new even if you followed the series of articles about the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights era in Mississippi that appeared in this newsletter between 2011 through 2015 or have read several books about the subject.

The Museum’s web site touts our State as “ground zero” of the civil rights era and what you learn in the galleries certainly supports the claim. The unvarnished information is at times appalling or deeply sobering or both. While I was there a group of African-American teenagers laughed and smiled as they had their photos taken while standing under a doorway entrance titled “whites only.” Every film room that I looked into was full of people silently watching whatever topic was covered.

The most disturbing image was the post-mortem photograph of Emmitt Till. Even though I have seen it in numerous settings in the past, it is as horrific today as the first time I saw it. There are signs posted in different areas that prepare visitors for this. Spirits of the visitors lifted in the galleries covering the era following the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the enactment of other federal civil rights legislation that followed.

The Museum is serving its purpose. It provides a venue where you can encounter the past, learn what the people of our State went through, and ask yourself whether what happened back then could ever happen again.

Admission on the third Saturday of every month to the Civil Rights Museum and the History Museum is free. As I left the Civil Rights Museum and headed to the Gift Shop at 2:30p.m., I asked a volunteer how many people had visited the museum so far that day. She showed me her counter and said that 1,088 people had been to the museum that day. At the front desk a staff member told me that the museum had over 100,000 visitors since it opened five and one-half months ago.

The gift shop has a first rate collection of books about the civil war, civil rights, history, music, literature, and the fine arts created by or about Mississippians. There is also a large selection of art work such as lovely ceramic pieces from the Wolfe Studios and other items to purchase as souvenirs. The special quilt exhibit is on the second floor over the gift shop. A handmade quilt prepared in 1902 that has a map of Mississippi when it only had 75 counties is well worth the walk upstairs.

If you have not been to the Civil Rights Museum, I highly recommend it. If you have been, go back and take an out of town guest and pick a subject, your home town, or a key figure such as Brenda Travis, Medgar Evers, Robert Moses, Anne Moody, Fanny Lou Hamer, or Robert Clark. Look for them as you pass through the exhibit. You will be amazed at their courage, determination, and sacrifice in working to secure civil rights for themselves and others.

  1. John Henegan is a member of Butler Snow LLP in Ridgeland, Mississippi and a regular contributor to the CABA Newsletter. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views or opinions of his law firm or anyone in his firm or the views or opinions of the Capital Area Bar Association, its officers, directors, members or associates, or any of the organizations with which any of them are associated.