Scoundrel Time

How It Ends: The Message from Mississippi

It’s hard to imagine the end of the Trump presidency when you live in a place that supports him. Mississippi gave Donald Trump all six of its Electoral College votes as well as 57.9% of the state’s popular vote, which makes it hard to escape his supporters and apologists, even in the blue bubble of the college town of Oxford. But being back in the South also reminds me that locally based resistance that strives to expose the truth does work. That’s the whole story of the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

From the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the 1964 Freedom Summer murders of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, the historical record of the civil rights movement in Mississippi is one punctuated with violence as well as a distortion of the destructive realities of racial oppression that today seem downright Trumpian. White Mississippians criticized Emmett Till’s mother’s decision to have an open casket on the basis of a created truth, seeing Till’s funeral only as a means of raising funds for the NAACP. White Mississippians even falsely accused the NAACP of being allied with communists and their sympathizers.

It’s this juxtaposition of violence, truth, and distortion of reality that runs through the exhibits of the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the country’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum. Unlike the black-and-white propaganda films supporting segregation Mississippi taxpayers once funded—films you can see as you tour the museum—this is an operation dedicated to unearthing the realities of Mississippi’s complex racial history. Drawing on an assortment of anti-civil-rights propaganda, the museum’s exhibits even include panels that show how the state consistently sought to link all efforts for African American civil rights to communism and other unsavory cultural elements, in an effort to sow fear among white Mississippians during the McCarthy era. The most chilling parts of the civil rights movement are made real through artifacts, whether it is the remains of the fire-bombed truck of activist Vernon Dahmer or the rifle that murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

At the invitation of Mississippi’s governor, President Trump visited the recent opening of the museum. Given the ways the civil rights movement fought against the lies of white supremacy, as well as Trump’s tenuous relationship with historical truth, the President’s presence felt vindictive to many Mississippians and led to protests and boycotts even in a state that supports him. Rather than making a planned public address at the museum’s opening, Trump’s time was limited to a private tour of the museum. That seemed entirely appropriate in a museum dedicated to portraying inclusion and justice, two attributes that cannot be associated with the current president and his administration.

The exhibits in Mississippi’s new civil rights museum remind its visitors that change came to the Magnolia state because young civil rights activists came together to form a community within a social struggle. Moreover, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was careful to remain a group-centered organization, not one aligned with a single leader. Rather than thinking about how the Trump presidency ends in impeachment or evoking the 25th Amendment, the focus should be placed on building a community that works to make sure that he is not re-elected. Even in places that support Trump, his influence is waning, as the objection to his Mississippi visit and the special Senate election in Alabama make clear. So, those of us who see ourselves as part of the Trump resistance must ask ourselves whether we have built a sense of community within this current struggle against the ideas his administration has promoted. If we haven’t, we need to start building that community now. And we must also think about what happens beyond the 2020 elections, by having an idea of the type of leadership we will need to recover from the damage of the past four years. If locally-based resistance worked in the darkness of Mississippi’s past, it can work around the country once the Trump era ends.