Overcome for Others

The fact that I was in Mississippi for the month of December meant that I would be in town for the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Although I had no plans to attend the grand opening, I definitely planned to see it before I left. Getting a ticket and fighting the crowd was too great a prospect to fathom. However, when Governor Phil Bryant invited Donald Trump to the ceremony, several of the luminaries backed out, expressing that it was an affront to the spirit of the museum to have such a person honored alongside civil rights heroes. So people like Congressman John L. Lewis would not be there anyway

Instead, there would be a protest luncheon held at a local restaurant on the same day. I decided that I would attend it. It would give me an opportunity to move around and talk. While my time in the gym and in rehab are very important, I try to take any opportunity I can to spend an afternoon out. Doing something that requires several hours of speech and ambulation is the type of real-world function to which one needs to subject one’s body.

On the day of the event, my friend Sue from the atheist group picked me up to take me to the restaurant. She had a truck that – although it would have presented a challenge before – presented no problem for me to climb aboard. Sue qualifies for some disability services too. On the way to lunch, I described how moving back to Minnesota had made my life easier. There were so many things in Minnesota that made it possible to be a healthy and engaged member of my community. From affordable health care to subsidized transportation and a complimentary gym membership, I was at work, physical therapy, the gym, or the coffee shop virtually every day of the week. The fact that I was always moving my body contributed greatly to my recovery.

Sue said that she had been watching videos of my workouts online, and that she was impressed. She is from Whitby Island, Washington, and she admitted that she had been considering moving back to the Evergreen State, because living there would offer her better benefits for her own physical ailments as well We got to the restaurant and the parking lot was full. She asked if I would like for her to drop me off at the front door. Feeling guilty, I told her that it wouldn’t be necessary; I wasn’t going to make her walk alone.

We had to park just beyond the edge of the pavement and walk up a tiny incline. From there, it was a trek across the parking lot, then I had to pull myself up the steps. Once we got inside, they told us that our group was upstairs. Rather than have us take the stairs, they showed us to an elevator. After we got to the dining room, we found a table by a window to the far side. When we finally got to our seats, my heart was racing, but I felt good about the amount of walking I had already done.

I really didn’t know what to expect inside. Was it going to be a formal program with a featured speaker? They asked us if we wanted to have the buffet or order off the menu. I felt it would be easiest to get situated and just have things brought to me. It turns out there was no program. Instead, it was just progressive Mississippians trying to figure out how to make our state a better, more loving place.

There were several people there who I had come to know since my stroke. One of them is my friend DeeDee. I had known her for years online, but hadn’t met her in person until two months before my stroke. We have since met several times in person. Recently, she became a professor at Mississippi State University. Watching people like DeeDee reminds me that I can always continue achieving my intellectual goals, even with everything I am dealing with. I spend a lot of time in physical rehab, but I have a great deal of time to dedicate to other pursuits, one I start matching my interests with my aptitudes.

As the crowd died down, the few of us remaining retired to a side room to talk. By now, my voice was thoroughly exhausted. Instead of talking, I mostly listened. There was a mixture of talk of local politics and gossip, peppered with many personal stories about how life and policy intersect in Jackson. DeeDee also told us about some of the museum exhibits. It really made me want to go. In addition to my desire to see an emotionally moving commemoration to the struggle for civil rights, I have always felt that being a Mississippian connects one intimately to figures and events one reads about in textbooks.

I finally got my chance to see the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum one Saturday in late December. The sky was overcast – a chalky mixture of greys and whites spilling out like paint smeared onto an inverted canvas. The high temperature was supposed to be in the mid fifties. However, when we got to the museum, it was only about 10:00, and the temperature was only in the high forties.

Dad parked in the underground garage. The walk from the car to the elevator and from the elevator to the front door presented no real complication. So I thought about walking through the museum on my own. I imagined being able to finally walk through a building that big without a wheelchair. I would be so proud of myself. But that fantasy only lasted a few seconds before I thought better of it and asked security for a wheelchair.

Jackson is much smaller than Memphis or Birmingham, and Mississippi has a poorer economy than Tennessee or Alabama. Ergo, I hadn’t gotten my hopes up too high for the museum. Sure I had heard good reviews of it, but I had been careful to temper my enthusiasm by reminding myself, “Yeah but she probably has that strong of an emotional response because she lives in Mississippi.” I was guarding against setting myself up for disappointment. Given my precarious economic situation, I needed every event during this visit to feel like something positive.

Starting with the museum entrance, everything blew me away. As you walk through the hall, the space feels very austere. If I remember correctly it’s monochromatic and filled with clean, block letters. As you advance toward the first gallery, your eyes are assailed by a mesmerizing dance of color and images. Your heart beats faster as you are drawn to what is inside and waiting to be discovered.

As soon as you are inside, you are confronted by a larger-than-life mural of the struggle for freedom in Mississippi. There are various quotes from different decades that help to give the viewer a unified picture of what a mosaic of voices declared that they were fighting for. You find yourself dwarfed by the wall but also empowered by the strength of the mission at hand. It is hard not to feel the weight of history.

To the right of this exhibit, you see the first of several timelines. This one charts black life in the 1800s – from slavery to the Civil War. This isn’t a line with dots representing various dates. It is another wall crowded with pictures. Next to each depiction is a year and a description. When I say that the space is crowded, I do not mean that anything in the museum is jumbled or disorganized. Every image is placed with purpose and care. The sheer volume is such that you would have to make multiple trips back in order to digest every single offering. In fact, I had to be selective with the number of photos I took, because I could only include so much.

One of my favorite features are the banners of lynchings. These are a chronology of all of the recorded extrajudicial executions of black people in the state. You have to see this year-by-year parade of inhumanity in person, because I could not back up far enough to get all the banners in one shot. Having to look at the dizzying lines of text transforms the abstract horror to flesh and bone. Like death camp ledgers, seeing these horrific events as lines of text is haunting.

There is also a central room dedicated to the martyrs of the movement. All of their portraits are overhead. They seem to drift still upward, through the roof of the building. It is as though no structure in Mississippi can contain their lofty ambitions for the state. This is another space whose impact is so overwhelming that it needs to be experienced.

There is also an exhibit on the murder of Emmett Till – the youth brutally tortured and lynched for whistling at a white woman. There is the preserved rifle that killed NAACP field representative Medgar Evers. Of course, there are the usual relics of white supremacy, like Citizens’ Council signs and Klan robes. Looking at all of these images, one can feel the inexhaustible effort that was put forth to maintain the color line in the state.

Another gallery that assails the senses is the one on the youth arm of the freedom movement. The focus is a mock-up of a cell where students were jailed after being arrested for marching in peaceful protests. On the adjoining wall are posters of mugshots , allowing you to put names and faces to the protesters. This lends the gallery a powerful immediacy. As you continue through the space, you see many, many more of these mugshots along the tops of the wall. Eventually they are so numerous, they look more like pieces of confetti. If you had not seen the first wall of mugshots, you might not have noticed what these pictures were.

The last gallery is Where Do We Go From Here? Along this wall are pictures and quotes from present-day Mississippi. These quotes describe how speaker fights for social justice in current times. It is inspiring, and it charges the viewer to take up the fight, as the struggle for civil rights is not just a chapter of history consigned to a museum. You can still see the need today. When children grow up in neglect; when American communities do not have safe drinking water; when we simply do not make provide electricity to American taxpayers; when certain communities are targeted by the justice system with impunity; the struggle for civil rights is not dead.

After two hours, Dad and I had made it through the museum. While I regretted that my compromised eyesight had not let me read as thoroughly as I wanted, I also realized that I had to be mindful of Dad’s time. Besides, this museum would be here for my enjoyment for decades. It wasn’t like I couldn’t come back and spend the entire day there the next time I was in town.

Dazzled by excitement, I had Dad drive me to Starbucks. Instead of working on my blog, I spent hours uploading albums and telling friends online about my experiences. As superficial as it felt, sharing images impressions was one way I could start doing something for others.

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