JACKSON, Miss. – President Donald Trump spent about 30 minutes inside Mississippi’s glimmering civil rights museum Saturday, strolling through exhibits honoring jailed and assassinated leaders before delivering a brief speech at a private ceremony.
The president’s visit to commemorate the opening – the capstone of Mississippi’s bicentennial celebration – brought protests and boycotts, and evoked raw emotions in the center of the Deep South, the core of the generations-long civil rights movement. Trump delivered his speech to a largely white audience, and his motorcade left before the main opening ceremony – for which hordes of people had gathered in freezing temperatures and a rare snowfall. Tickets had been sold out for months.
Trump largely stuck to prepared remarks, with an occasional impromptu comment.
“Those are very big phrases, very big words,” he said, after reading his speech on Jim Crow laws, segregation, emancipation and achieving the “sacred birthright of equality.”
Trump praised several civil rights leaders by name, including Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his Jackson driveway in 1963.
“Here, we memorialize the brave men and women who struggled to sacrifice, and sacrifice so much, so that others might live in freedom,” Trump said.
In contrast with his 76-minute rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Friday night, the president finished speaking within 10 minutes – and was gone five minutes after. The often voluble Trump was largely silent as he walked past a Confederate flag insignia, a replica of a Mississippi county jail where protesters were held and beaten, a plaque honoring hundreds of Freedom Riders, an elaborate light sculpture and portraits of slaves in the 1800s. He looked mostly ahead, occasionally stopping briefly to look at a picture or sign, as he was guided by the governor and locals.
“I didn’t have the courage to do what they did,” Reuben Anderson – the first black Supreme Court justice in the state and chairman of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum Foundation – who was the president’s tour guide, said to Trump regarding the Tougaloo Nine, who integrated the library in Jackson in 1961. “They took their lives in their hands.”
The museum includes the Freedom Wall, a timeline of slavery from 1619 to the end of the Civil War in 1865, as well as mementos of the civil rights era – including a blood-soaked chessboard from a jailhouse, shards of glass from a bombed church, the rifle used to kill Evers, textbooks from segregated schools – and portraits and names of thousands involved in the struggle. Trump saw two exhibits, blocked from the lobby by a curtain, and was soon whisked away.
The visit was carefully calibrated – with organizers creating an earlier ceremony for Trump to keynote, and protesters never coming within shouting distance of the president. Organizers and Trump’s aides alike feared widespread protests, but the president wanted to attend after he was invited by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.
In some ways, the day was a dichotomy of scenes. Trump was greeted by an adoring crowd largely made up of white Mississippians at Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport; others gathered along the snowy roadways, waving American flags and snapping pictures of his motorcade.
Trump is popular in the state, having won in 2016 with 58 percentage points compared with Hillary Clinton’s 40 percentage points, and was hailed by Bryant, who greeted him at the airport and rode with him in the presidential limousine.
Bryant told the crowd that, with his busy schedule, it was nearly impossible for Trump to come from Washington for the museum event. (Trump was actually in Florida for the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate.)
He received loud applause during his brief remarks at the private ceremony. “We’ve been through a whole lot. We’ve seen a whole lot. But we’re a forgiving and loving state,” Anderson said.
On High Street, a few blocks from the new museum, about 100 demonstrators protested the president’s presence in Mississippi, saying that they were disgusted with Trump’s rhetoric on race – including statements that black voters are impoverished with no jobs, his years of questioning President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, his attacks on black athletes and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and his moves as president. Some put Confederate flag stickers over their mouths as a form of silent protest. Others chanted, “No hate in our state.” Many carried handmade signs. One read, “There’s nothing civil or right about Donald Trump.”
Lewis, the famed civil rights leader, boycotted. The NAACP had a separate ceremony earlier in the day.
“The martyrs of Mississippi who have died for our civil rights, for our progress, will not allow me to stand with Donald Trump,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, D, said, explaining her absence.
Amos Brown, a veteran civil rights activist who, at 14, founded the NAACP’s first youth council, also boycotted the museum opening. “It was a mockery for him to be present,” Brown said of Trump. “He has not been involved at all in the struggle.”
At the formal opening, speakers talked more about the unusually frigid weather than the president.
Paula Barksdale, a Jackson native, flew from her home in Texas to attend the ceremony. Barksdale grew up next door to Evers. From her childhood, she remembers being awakened by the sound of the gunshots that killed him.
She described the museum’s opening as “just awesome,” but she had mixed feelings on the president’s attendance.
“I think it’s kind of good that he came,” Barksdale said. “But actually, no, I don’t think that. Nobody saw him. He wasn’t going to affect my decision to come either way.”
Al White of Duck Hill, Mississippi, waited outside the museum with his 12-year-old daughter for their turn to enter. White, who drove an hour and a half to attend the ceremony, said he thinks the museum is especially important for the youths of Mississippi. “I think this is a good first step,” he said. “A chance to move in a different direction.”
The Mississippi Bicentennial Choir sang gospel hymns as the crowd moved toward a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the entrance. Around 1 p.m., long lines formed as the museum finally opened its doors. By that time, Trump was headed to his estate, where he planned to watch the Army-Navy college football game. He said he was pulling for both teams.