January 14, 2018

A Visit to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum exterior

I visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in December, a couple weeks after it opened. I had little idea what to expect since all I really knew about it was that our "stable genius" of a president had generated some controversy by his recent visit. I wanted to go into the experience with as few expectations as possible, so I went out of my way to avoid reading anything about the museum beforehand.

As I walked in the museum entrance and through a metal detector, I found myself reflecting on how sad it is that this sort of security is necessary at this or any other museum. I encountered a long line that did not appear to be moving at all. There were lots of families with young children, and I thought it was great that their parents were bringing them to a museum. As it turned out, the extremely slow-moving line was probably deliberate. Once I was through the line, the entry point to the exhibits was so crowded that it was almost unbearable. I felt like I had to hold my breath to make myself as thin as possible to fit. Had it not been for the slowness of the line outside, this wouldn't have worked at all.

Fortunately, it was only the first exhibit area that was so crowded. Because visitors moved through the subsequent exhibits at different paces, it became much less densely packed as one moved from exhibit hall to exhibit hall. The design and layout were fascinating. There was a large round room at the center, into which each exhibit hall exited. The halls were arranged in chronological order so that one would enter the next hall from the center circle. It was a bit confusing initially, but the staff was helpful in providing some direction.

The first exhibit hall started much as you would probably expect, at the beginning with slavery. This would soon move through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and so on. Although the museum went all the way up to modern times, I did not make it all the way through. With little idea of what to expect, I had no clue how big it was or how long it would take to make it through. As a result, I had not allocated enough time. I made it through the 1960's Civil Rights movement and just into the 1970s before having to leave. I'll have to go back another time to finish it.

FBI Poster of Missing Civil Rights WorkersDescribing the inside of the exhibit halls is difficult. I should have taken a camera with a wide-angle lens, but I'm not sure that would do it justice. There was a sort of Alice in Wonderland vibe in the sense that everything was covered with text, graphics, video, sound, giant artwork all the way up the insanely high walls. They had clearly turned a team of graphic designers loose in there and given them free reign. There was so much sensory input that it was sometimes difficult to take it all in.

Of course, the sensory overload paled in comparison to the emotional impact of the exhibits. I never had the sense that the museum was attempting to shock the audience, but I wouldn't accuse them of sugar-coating anything either. The depictions of slavery, lynchings, and the like were hard to stomach. I found this appropriate because these things were horrible. They should be hard to stomach.

Two things stood out to me with regard to the emotional impact I experienced. First, it seemed clear that virtually every defense of slavery, segregation, or white superiority was cloaked in Christianity. Christians were doing all of these things while using their "holy" book to justify it. They were very up-front about this, and many saw it as part of their duty as Christians. To be sure, the same book was used later in a different way by many abolitionists and Civil Rights leaders. Still, I do not think one can or should overlook how intertwined Christianity was with white supremacy, the citizens' councils, the Klan, or the horrible treatment of Black people.

The second thing that stood out and was even harder to bare was just how cyclic white supremacy and everything that goes along with it seems to be. That it was dominant throughout the period of slavery was no surprise. Intellectually, it made sense that it would resurface virtually every time Blacks made progress. But on more of an emotional level, this was the part I found the most challenging. There were so many examples where tangible progress would be made only to be swept away by yet another resurgence of the Klan, blatantly racist politicians, or some other wave of white supremacy. It seemed that for every step forward, there would be one (and often more than one) step backward.

If I had any criticism of the museum, it would be that there were fewer historical artifacts than I am used to seeing in museums and far more text. For every artifact, there seemed to be several pages of text to read. Some of it seemed repetitive. At one point, I found myself thinking that I'd probably get more out of it if someone were to put all the text hanging on the walls into a book. I do not think the museum found the right balance between items to look at and text to read, and I say that as someone who very much likes to read.

I'm glad I visited the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and I'd like to return to see the rest of it. It gave me a lot to think about. More importantly, it forced me to experience some uncomfortable feelings. I'm still wrestling with some of what it brought up, but I think it is fair to say that it gave me a greater appreciation for why the Civil Rights movement is often referred to as "the struggle," why it is so important, and why work toward true racial equality is far from over.