In Mississippi’s Museum Openings, a Victory for ‘Local People’

Jemar Tisby
NOTE: This article originally appeared in “Opinion” section of the New York Times.

JACKSON, Miss. — When President Trump decided at the last minute to attend the grand opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum here on Saturday, the museums’ staff flew into overdrive. I saw it in their sincere but tense smiles, in the constant buzz of walkie-talkie chatter. A boulder was dropped in their path, yet the event went smoothly.

It wasn’t an easy road to get here. The state history museum had been closed for a time after Hurricane Katrina ripped off the roof in 2005. A bill to open a civil rights museum was proposed in 2000, but it got state funding only in 2011. Two years after that, organizers broke ground.

The day was the result of efforts by a small group of passionate and determined Mississippians who accomplished something great despite many obstacles. That is the story of the grand opening of the two museums — and it is also the story of the civil rights movement in America.

In 1994, the historian John Dittmer wrote “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” which helped reshape the way scholars thought about the civil rights movement. Most of the well-known histories at that point focused on the big names — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, Rosa Parks. But Mr. Dittmer’s book turned attention to the activism of sharecroppers, domestic servants and everyday people. It argued they were the ones who really forced a transformation.

“This grass-roots insurgency focused its efforts around community organization, engaged in direct action protest to dramatize its program, and won major victories, culminating in the Civil Rights Act,” he wrote. One of those local people who chose to resist was Medgar Evers, the field secretary for the Mississippi branch of the NAACP. But it cost him his life

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