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Today is January 23, 2018

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum: Remembering the Movement

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum director Pamela Junior shares thoughts on the new museum’s mission and her hopes for its impact on visitors.

By Debbie Stringer

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum: Remembering the Movement

“This Little Light of Mine,” the museum’s four-story central gallery, features sculpture that reacts with light and music to visitors who enter the space. Cooperative Energy is among the private contributors who helped fund museum exhibits. Photo courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Mississippi is shining a light on one of its darkest periods in history with the recent opening of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, along with the Museum of Mississippi History in downtown Jackson. The only state-operated civil rights museum in the nation presents stories of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi from the period 1945 to 1976. Exhibits focus on the personal experiences and contributions of individuals who served on the front lines of the movement.

These activists and their supporters eventually succeeded in changing Mississippi while calling on America to live up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

“Mississippi was ground zero for the Civil Rights Movement, so who could tell the story better than Mississippi? Who could be more able to give the hurt, the pain, the feeling of the movement better than us?” said Pamela D.C. Junior, museum director.

A Jackson native, Junior holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Jackson State University. She managed the Smith-Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in Jackson before becoming director of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum last spring.

Her initial challenge was to ensure the museum got its story right. Its mission, in a word, is truth.

“When I first came in, I wanted to make sure that the language was correct and that everything was correct,” Junior said.

She hopes museum visitors will gain a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement’s purpose, and its beneficiaries.

“The civil rights movement was for all people. It wasn’t just for African Americans.... Civil rights are human rights,” Junior said.

“So what I say to everybody is, make sure you come and see what people did for all of us to help make Mississippi a great state.”

The museum story opens with exhibits on slavery and Reconstruction, and continues through the rise of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s.

The struggle for civil rights emerged as a nascent movement in the mid-1940s. More than 85,000 black Mississippians served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, yet they returned home to unequal treatment and discrimination. Determined to challenge Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation in most every aspect of their lives, many black veterans joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Black Mississippians would be murdered, beaten or terrorized; denied voting rights; endure legal setbacks; and fight school desegregation battles in their decades-long struggle for equality and justice.

Their stories are told in seven museum galleries, through interactive elements, audiovisual theaters, historic photographs and artifacts.

“I think people are going to be surprised at how truthful and how authentic the [museum’s] story really is. And there is nothing sugar coated about it. It tells the truth,” Junior said.

Visitors will see how activists stood up for civil rights in the face of racial segregation, knowing they may not survive to benefit from their actions.

“So many people laid their lives on the line for us,” Junior said. “I ask people the question, is there a cause that you would die for? Is there a cause that you would lay your life on the line for today, and not see the effects of it for 20 years down the road?”

The seven galleries encircle a central four-story gallery, where a 40-foot memorial sculpture hanging overhead reacts with music and glowing color as visitors enter the space. The song “This Little Light of Mine,” a civil rights anthem, swells from individual voices to an entire choir as more visitors enter. The interaction evokes the unity of citizens who led the Civil Rights Movement in the state with those who traveled to Mississippi to help support it, despite the danger.

Junior describes the gallery as a “magnificent place to pay homage to the people who fought and died” for civil rights.

“It gives me chills when I think about it,” she said.

The final gallery, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, encourages visitors to consider ways they could take part in racial reconciliation.

“I wanted people to have a charge, to go out and do whatever we can to make Mississippi the best Mississippi that it can be. And I think that from looking at what’s [in the museum], you’ll be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Okay, I know what I need to do,’” Junior said.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is part of a complex that also houses the Museum of Mississippi History, located at 222 North St. in downtown Jackson. Both museums are open Tuesday through Sunday. Visitor information is available at mcrm.mdah.ms.gov and 601-576-6800.

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