The president flew in to Jackson, took a tour, spoke briefly, hid from the public, and left. Many celebrating a historic state project said that was just as well
This article titled “‘An untimely visit’: Trump avoids protest at Mississippi Civil Rights Museum” was written by Alan Huffman in Jackson, Mississippi, for theguardian.com on Saturday 9th December 2017 21.55 UTC
Mississippi faced a complicated task in proving that it could properly interpret its past in the first state-funded civil rights museum in the US.
By all accounts, the state has risen to the occasion. Black and white visitors who were given advance previews of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, including many who were involved in the civil rights movement in the state, uniformly praised its candor and fairness.
Then Donald Trump announced he would attend the grand opening on Saturday, which threw everything into a spin. Protests, boycotts and counter-events flourished. Many cited the president’s comment in August that there were many “fine people” among white supremacists and neo-Nazis at a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one counter-protester dead.
Trump still came to Mississippi, although in the event he did not appear in public.
In unusually cold weather, Jim Hood, Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general, stood outside the museum. He said he had chosen not to accompany Trump’s private tour, which was scheduled to last about 15 minutes.
“It’s an untimely visit by the president,” Hood said, adding that he wished the state’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, who invited Trump without informing anyone affiliated with the museum, “had thought about the feelings of others”.
“That’s what this is about,” Hood said, “understanding the feelings of others. As it is it’s a subdued environment and a lot of people are not here.”
Hood said he chose not to accompany Trump because he did not “think he has much perspective on civil rights”. He added: “I’m glad he’s not speaking. I’m here to hear about civil rights history and his coming did throw cold water in the face of the people who fought those battles.”
Among those who boycotted the event, all of whom said they supported the museum but disapproved of Trump’s presence, were US representative Bennie Thompson, Jackson mayor Chokwe Lumumba, former secretary of the navy and governor Ray Mabus, and US representative John Lewis. Another former governor, Haley Barbour, attributed his no-show to snow.
A crowd of about 2,000 braved the chill. The temperature hovered around freezing, with a rare snowfall still on the ground. The crowd included a large contingent of security, media, volunteers, officials and state employees. There were many empty seats.
There were speeches by state officials and there was also Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson in 1963 and is the subject of an exhibition in the museum. Evers-Williams, who did accompany the Trump tour, described “my period of hatred of my native state” and said she was initially dubious about the state’s ability to truthfully chronicle its history.
After touring the museum, she said: “I believe in the state of my birth, and that is something I never thought I’d say.”
She added: “I wept.”
Evers-Williams did not mention Trump, though she noted: “Today we are being challenged almost as much as when Medgar was alive. If Mississippi can rise to the occasion, then the rest of the country should be able to do the same.”
Former governor William Winter, who was instrumental in getting the museum and its sister Museum of Mississippi History built, also did not mention Trump. He said: “We’ve gone through some very dark times but today I must tell you, I’ve never been prouder to be a Mississippian.”
Bryant likewise praised the museums, and said he appreciated Trump’s visit.
‘Any other president than one supported by the KKK’
The president spoke briefly inside the museum. In the crowd outside, some saw Trump’s uncharacteristic decision not to speak publicly as telling. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, said he suspected the decision had something to do with “that sign at the front that says the seats are reserved for civil rights veterans”.
“That’s why he didn’t speak – because the crowd would not have given him an enthusiastic reaction.”
That sentiment was echoed by Dita Aphrodite Kavyas, a civil rights attorney on the Mississippi Gulf coast and one of about 150 protesters who lined a nearby street.
“He won’t face a hostile crowd,” she said. “I think he’s afraid to stand in front of people who aren’t yelling in support. But now he can put in a press release that he came.”
Talamieka Brice, who had organized protesters through her Pant Suit Nation Facebook page, said it was unfortunate Trump had become the focus of the event, which was planned to bring people together.
“If it was any other president than one who is supported by the KKK, I’d be fine with it,” she said.
As Brice spoke, a garbage truck passed. The driver honked and waved in apparent solidarity. Fears that violent protests would erupt proved unfounded. There was a lone pro-Trump protester, Shelby Reynor, who held a poster depicting the state flag, which bears the Confederate flag in its canton corner.
“I knew there would be anti-Trump people and I wanted to stand up,” he said.
There were no state flags flying around the museum site.
Obvious Trump supporters were few among the mixed-race crowd. One man who declined to give his name noted that Trump had brought the housing and urban development secretary, who is African American. He said with a laugh: “If you’re Donald Trump, what do you wear to a civil rights museum opening? Ben Carson!”
After the unseen president flew back to Florida, the predominately white crowd that accompanied the private tour emerged from the museum building. It included the official Miss Mississippi, a perfectly coiffed woman wearing a glittering tiara.
Several people who were present for the Trump tour reported that he had said, in prepared remarks: “Mississippi is a state I love, where I’ve had great success.”
Many who chose to forego the museum opening attended a separate event at the Smith Robertson Museum, which focuses on African American history in Jackson. Hood lamented their absence but said he had heard talk of holding another opening ceremony, without Trump “and with all the civil rights people”.
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