The backlash against President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the new Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum underscores an issue far more significant than a polarizing president. It was further proof that the wounds from decades upon decades of racial injustice in our nation, and in Mississippi in particular, remain deep. The pain and the sensitivities are ever-present, as is the continued socio-economic oppression that has kept African Americans as second-class citizens. What truly went wrong this past Saturday was not President Trump’s visit, but rather his departure. He apparently left Mississippi without fully understanding these wounds, and, much like his followers, without any urgency to heal them. To heal the wounds and honor the legacy of martyrs and civil rights icons.
These reasons are why I joined Derrick Johnson, National President of the NAACP, and the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP branches, Congressmen John Lewis of Georgia and Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, in opposing Trump’s visit. His presidency has not shown a sensitivity to our history, nor have his policies. By simply showing up in front of the cameras, he was a distraction. Worse, he certainly didn’t do what he intended: win over African American voters and bring unity to our nation. You see, the great people of Mississippi trudge on through difficult times, but they don’t forget. They don’t forget decades of injustice that continues today. They certainly can’t shed the horrific memory of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till in 1955, after a white woman claimed she was offended by him in a grocery store. I wish Trump could fill my 14-year-old shoes when I learned about young Emmett Till’s murder. That could have been me, I thought, or any of my loved ones, as I picked up Jet magazine, which I delivered as a boy, and read about the tragedy. That moment catapulted me into the battle for social justice and human rights. It was the kind of moment, repeated too often over many years, even today, that offers individuals a deep understanding of the importance of the brand new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.
I didn’t just get mad – I did my homework. I confided in my mentor and friend at the time, the great Medgar Evers, then field secretary of the NAACP and he said, “Don’t just get mad, be smart.” From his advice, I organized a youth council to teach our young friends how to fight racism and injustice. It was the very first youth council in the state of Mississippi. This is the reason for a place where individuals can learn why a museum to civil rights in the state of Mississippi and why it is such an important, sensitive place. A place where we can learn from our past and begin to peacefully fight for a brighter and better future.
It’s an education President Trump hasn’t benefited from. Though he freely takes to Twitter to utter pretty much anything he wants without consequence, no matter how offensive, I was removed from a segregated high school in 1958 for simply speaking to a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper about racial injustice in Mississippi schools. After the article came out, the Jackson school districts white superintendent KP Walker, contacted my mother and told her I couldn’t go back to that school because I could not keep my mouth closed. Mr. Evers threatened to file suit over the matter – an early experience that remains very tender to me.
At age 20, I was jailed after taking issue with a white doctor in the emergency room of a Mississippi hospital who said to an elderly African American patient, “What’s wrong with you, boy?” I was subsequently arrested for disturbing the peace. You see, in the past and still today, an African American brazen enough to open his mouth and breathe appears to disturb the peace. When Trump denounced 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem to oppose injustice, what he was in essence saying was, “What’s wrong with you, boy?”
I never forgot the moment that elderly patient was disrespected. And none of us will soon forget President Trump’s description of black athletes who stood up against injustice as “sons of bitches.”
Many of us still haven’t forgotten how President Trump in the 1990s took out an advertisement calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were exonerated by DNA evidence in regard to a 1989 rape case.
Still, President Trump claims he is not a racist. Maybe that is true; perhaps his views are purely reflections of ignorance, which at least can be forgivable. However, it has become clear by the doubling down on his controversial policies that he does not understand our history or experience. After all, it was just this past February when Mr. President mistakenly stated during a presentation that the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass remains alive. But we all know Frederick Douglass died in 1895.
Bottom line: President Trump should not have attended the grand opening for Mississippi’s powerful civil rights museum because he has not done his homework. If he had studied up on Mississippi’s history – if he understood the experience of just one black individual growing up in the state – would he continue to stand by his policies and statements?
And so now we issue an invitation to the President. We appeal to our leader in the Oval Office to call a meeting of interfaith and civil rights leaders as soon as possible, preferably on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday or the time of observing the 50th anniversary of his assassination, so that we can have a civil conversation that will provide Mr. Trump deep insight into the civil rights experience. We need our nation’s leaders to be informed on these issues so as not to cheapen our sacrifice and to further beg the question of whether Dr. King’s death was in vain.
This discussion must be respectful – aimed at mutual enlightenment, encouragement, and national engagement.
Maybe then Mr. Trump can visit our newest civil rights museum without controversy – and more importantly, with a deeper respect for the African American experience.