Gov. Phil Bryant spoke at the groundbreaking of Mississippi's new Civil Rights Museum next to the state flag containing the Confederate battle symbol. Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain Jackson civil-rights hero Medgar Evers, is visible below the flow.
Photo by Trip Burns
The grand opening may be four years away, but Thursday's celebration on North Street inspired enough Mississippi pride to last us until then.
Three former governors and the current one, the permanent first lady of Mississippi, Myrlie Ever-Williams, and various state leaders broke ground on the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Thursday morning before a crowd of approximately 300 people.
Past governors—Haley Barbour, Ronnie Musgrove and William Winter—and current Gov. Phil Bryant tripped over each other trying to assign credit for the $80 million project, which will be the centerpiece of the state's bicentennial celebration when it opens in 2017.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History Director H.T. Holmes said the department has raised $5 million in private funds for the project. Most of the money will come from state bonds, which total $80 million ($40 million per building). MDAH had hoped to raise $14 million in private funds.
The governors talked about the importance of having both museums in the same location, and explained why all the state's history, not just the parts we're proud of, are important.
"There's a lot of good things and achievements in our history, and there's a lot that we wish wasn't there," Barbour said. "There are a lot of things we did wrong. There are a lot of things we need to learn from, and I think we are learning from. In this last 50 years, particularly, we have seen Mississippians start learning those lessons."
William Winter, whom Barbour said should get the most credit for bringing the project this far, mentioned the rocky path the museum followed to date.
"There were several points when this museum project was dead," Winter said. "But as you know, nothing is dead in the Legislature until it's dead, dead, dead. We never reached that third stage of dead, and here we are."
He also gave credit to Evers-Williams, the wife of slain civil-rights leader and Jacksonian Medgar Evers, for placing her trust in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History when, in 2002, she donated the Medgar and Myrlie Evers papers to the archives.
"I thank Medgar Evers every day for believing, not only in his country, but in the state of Mississippi," said Evers-Williams, who returned to live in Mississippi. "He used to say, repeatedly, that this will be the best place to live in the United States, once we put our problems, our hatred and our racism behind us.
"These two museums are going to show the world—not just Mississippi, or the other states—but the world who we are, where we have been, where we are today and where we are going tomorrow," Evers-Williams said.
The ceremony concluded with the crowd joining together for a rousing version of "This Little Light of Mine," a gospel children's song that Mississippi civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer and others helped make into an anthem for the movement here.
The estimated cost of construction is $70 million for both buildings, plus $20 million for exhibits, artifacts and education venues. MDAH projects the museums will have an annual impact of $19 million on the state's economy—mostly in Jackson—with 200,000 projected visitors every year.
In the short term, building the museums will mean 500 construction-related jobs and $19 million in wages, MDAH reports.