JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Many in Mississippi's African-American community had waited decades for a civil rights museum. But with President Donald Trump coming to the museum's opening Saturday, some will skip the eagerly anticipated opening.
They say Trump's policies are incompatible with honoring the African-American freedom struggle.
That slide into racial and partisan strife from what was supposed to be a moment of unity and atonement was punctuated Thursday with U.S. Rep John Lewis saying he would abandon his plans to speak, saying Trump's presence was an insult. U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi's only Democrat in Congress, announced his exit in a joint statement with Lewis. The NAACP, led by a Mississippian, has said Trump should cancel his planned appearance because of his divisive record on civil rights issues.
"To come and somehow give the impression that things are all right, that we're getting along, was absolutely the wrong message," Thompson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, saying he views Trump's agenda as too destructive to paper over differences, even for just an hour or two.
The White House later issued a statement calling it "unfortunate" that Lewis and Thompson won't join the president in honoring the "incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history."
The White House said Trump hopes others will join him in recognizing "that the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds."
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a big supporter of Trump who invited the president, is urging Mississippians to embrace the visit, a rare presidential trip to Mississippi not linked to a disaster. He told reporters Wednesday that Trump's presence will bring worldwide attention and give the museums a big boost.
"We are going to celebrate his presence," Bryant said. "I think he is going to have a testimonial speech that day and it will be a wonderful speech for all of Mississippi. People can lay aside any political positioning or pandering that they may have. This is a day for the president of the United States to come and honor Mississippi and that's what he intends to do, and I intend to be there with him when he does that."
Some African Americans, although opposed to Trump, still intend to go. The Rev. C.J. Rhodes, a prominent clergyman and son of one of the state's top voting rights lawyers, said he'd still go. He said Trump sharing the day is part of Mississippi's "complicated, complex, conflicted narrative."
"My stance in being present is saying we are here in Mississippi and we are not going away," Rhodes said, although he said he'd draw the line at taking a picture with Trump or Bryant.
But some plan protests and others continue to bail out, including current elected Democrats and veterans of the civil rights movement. Former Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus, most recently the Secretary of Navy, also announced Thursday he wouldn't attend, calling Trump an "overt racist."
"Donald Trump represents the exact opposite of what this museum is about — honoring the heroes who fought for, and often died for, the idea of equality of all," Mabus said in a statement. "Donald Trump's words and deeds show he would not stand with people like Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and so many, many more."
Lewis, a civil rights icon and Georgia Democrat, was arrested in Jackson in 1961 with Freedom Riders who were protesting segregated bus travel. He was held at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Later, as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis helped organize Freedom Summer, a volunteer effort to register voters in Mississippi in 1964. The killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner that summer near Philadelphia, Mississippi, contributed to political pressure leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Lewis has been expected to be one of the main speakers at the event, along with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of assassinated Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Evers-Williams has said she will address Trump's presence, although the president may be gone by the time she speaks. A schedule released Thursday by Bryant's office shows Trump speaking briefly inside the museum, but not outside during the main ceremony.
"If God gives me the breath and the strength, I will address his attendance when I stand to speak," she told The New York Times.
Two distinct museums are being dedicated under one roof. A museum of Mississippi History covers 15,000 years of human habitation. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum focuses primarily on the years 1945 to 1976, telling about efforts to break down segregation and bigotry, and the violent backlash against that work. For those who aren't going on Saturday, they are taking some consolation. As state Rep. Sonya Williams Barnes noted in announcing she wouldn't attend, the museum will still be there after Trump leaves.
"The museum is something I encourage those who have planned to attend on Saturday go witness the magnificent history Mississippi has to offer on another day," she said.
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This story has been corrected to show the name of Medgar Evers' widow is Myrlie Evers-Williams, not Myrlie Evers.