One Mississippi. Two Mississippi (museums)

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

The new crown jewel of the Magnolia State may be located 90 miles north of Hattiesburg, but its luster was made possible, in part, by Hub City native Iona Williams.

I’m talking, of course, about the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and its companion facility, the Museum of Mississippi History.

Williams, the same Hattiesburger who fought to save our city’s historic USO club and transform it into the African American Military History Museum, was a longtime and vocal proponent of a permanent museum dedicated to the state’s civil rights movement.

Her work – and that from all of the others who fought so tirelessly for its creation – should be lauded.

The museum is an American treasure and its quality is on par with any of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C.

But don’t take my word for it. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t make your way to the Jackson – and soon.

Disappointingly, the Museum of Mississippi History only includes a handful of nods to Hattiesburg and the Piney Woods.

However, its sister museum is chock-full of references to the Hub City and the often-notorious role it played during the state’s tumultuous civil rights movement.

The museum serves as a somber reminder of our not-so-distant past and all of the evils that came with it.

In the (literal) center of the museum is the gorgeous rotunda that pays tribute to martyrs of the movement including Jackson’s Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, Sr. of Hattiesburg.

The gallery is the heart of the museum. A dramatic light sculpture pulses wildly as music from the era fills the open air.

“Movement and music emanates from a dramatic light sculpture. As more visitors gather and interact with the sculpture—adding their own “light”—it shines brighter and the music grows stronger.”

Seven other individual galleries encompass the rotunda and take visitors on a journey of civil rights struggles in Mississippi from 1945 to 1976.

From Jim Crow laws to black empowerment, visitors are taken on an uncomfortable journey through the Magnolia state’s civil rights journey and are presented with a dizzying array of artifacts.

In one such gallery is the bullet-ridden and fire-scorched pickup truck of Dahmer.

In another is an entire section dedicated to “Hattiesburg voices” including Dorie and Joyce Ladner, Ellie Dahmer, and Hollis Watkins.

Hattiesburg’s involvement in the important 1963  “Freedom Vote” is also well documented – as is the refusal of Forrest County Circuit Clerk Theron Lynd to register local black voters.

Lynd’s action brought disgrace and embarrassment onto the Pine Belt with his ongoing disregard of the law that ultimately prevented thousands and thousands of black voters from their constitutional right to cast a ballot.

There are other mentions of the Hattiesburg area in the museum – including a list of names of local men who have been lynched by white mobs here during the course of the last 100 years.

Of course, the list is far too long:

Edward Lewis.

Henry Noark.

Thomas Johnson.

George Stevenson.

Arthur Jennings.

Emmanuel McCallum.

Much like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the new civil rights museum holds no punches and refuses to sugarcoat history.

Of course, Mississippi is not alone in her sins and despite this dark chapter of our local history, we have much for which to be thankful – including the fact our state now leads the nation in the number of black elected officials.

Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

The Civil Rights struggle that our state – and our nation – witnesses is part of our past and we cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes in our future.

Fortunately, this country has endured much and has come so far since 1964, but in other ways, it hasn’t changed one bit.

Jelani Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, summed it up best after visiting the museum during its December opening:

“History is a bullet whistling through the dark toward Medgar Evers, as he stood in the driveway of his home, in Jackson; it is the ruined body of Emmett Till, pulled from the Tallahatchie River; it is Vernon Dahmer, who led voter-registration efforts in Hattiesburg and died after the Klan burned down his home, calling from his deathbed for the struggle to continue.

“This has been the cost of progress. Mississippi, the South, and the United States have all travelled a great distance since 1963.

“But, from a distance, a mile marker and a headstone can appear indistinguishable.”

 

David Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor/publisher of The Hattiesburg Post.

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