JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Side-by-side museums opening in 2017 will tell an unflinching and thorough story of Mississippi, including its complex history of race relations and its roles in the Civil War and the civil rights movement, leaders said during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.
Under a clear blue sky, a diverse crowd of more than 500 people gathered on a ridge overlooking the state fairgrounds to mark the start of construction for the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
The museums will be two entities under a single roof, and they're scheduled to open for the state's bicentennial. The state is spending $40 million, and officials announced Thursday that they've raised $5 million in private donations with a goal of $9 million more.
"People worldwide will see why we love this state when they visit and treasure these museums and the history that it will boldly display," Gov. Phil Bryant said. "However, they will see also just how far we have come in Mississippi. They will see that this state is much more about the future than the past."
Civil rights leader Myrlie Evers-Williams said the museums will show "who we are, where we have been, where we are today and where we are going."
The civil rights museum will display the rifle that a white supremacist used to kill her husband, Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, in 1963. It will also have large panels with the names of each known victim of lynching in the state.
State Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said pivotal moments in American history occurred in Mississippi.
"It was, after all, the Siege of Vicksburg that determined the outcome of the Civil War, and it was in Mississippi that the struggle for civil rights galvanized the nation," he said.
Three of the five living former governors took part in Thursday's event — Democrat William Winter, who was governor 1980-84 and served more than 50 years on the state Archives and History board; Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who was governor 2000-2004 and worked on early funding for the museums; and Republican Haley Barbour, who served 2004-2012 and pushed lawmakers to put millions of dollars in to the museums and consolidate them on one site.
"Let's face it, there's a lot in Mississippi's history for us to be proud of," Barbour said. "There's a lot in Mississippi's history we wish wasn't there. There are a lot of things that we did wrong. There are a lot of things that we need to learn from and I think we are learning from in these last 50 years."
State House Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, said his own family's story is intertwined with that of the state — and that each type of story, good or bad, must be documented. He said his ancestors settled in east Mississippi's Lauderdale County in the 1830s. He acknowledged they displaced Choctaw Indians who'd long lived on the land, and that the Snowdens "brought with them folks who did not want to come at all" — African-American slaves.
Snowden said two of his ancestors volunteered for the Confederate army in the second year of the Civil War and lost their lives "because Mississippi asked them to."
The lawmaker also brought a hush to the audience when he talked about the "Mississippi Burning" slayings of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
"When Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were killed on that terrible night in 1964, one of the men in the murder party was a Snowden, from Lauderdale County," Snowden said. "Not a close relative, mind you; I never met the man. But my blood kin, nevertheless. That story, too, will be told here. That story must be told here."
Longtime civil rights activist Hollis Watkins led the crowd, including the governors, in singing "This Little Light of Mine." After the ceremony, members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians led people in tribal dances, while Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick, wearing a sparkling tiara, chatted and smiled for pictures.
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