President Donald Trump largely stuck to the script he was given at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, in Jackson, Mississippi, on Saturday. Even so, his past actions and statements on race shifted the focus away from the heroes the museum was meant to honor.
Trump’s attendance, which came at the invitation of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, sparked backlash among civil rights groups, activists, and politicians — many of whom called on him to cancel his appearance altogether, citing his record on civil rights and race and his policies that are often harmful to minorities. Black lawmakers and leaders, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) skipped the opening as a protest. The NAACP held a separate press conference to honor civil rights icons in Jackson.
The White House has expressed regret at the backlash against Trump’s attendance without acknowledging the very real reasons people have be upset. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders in a statement said it was “unfortunate” Lewis and Thompson wouldn’t attend the museum opening alongside Trump. Another White House spokesperson, Raj Shah, lamented that the event couldn’t be used for “unification and bringing people together,” overlooking that the president is perhaps the most divisive political figure in America today.
Trump himself has largely ignored the controversy publicly, but his administration’s attempts to cast him as some sort of victim misunderstands and warps he history the Mississippi museum is meant to honor.
Trump, obviously aware of the backlash, delivered a careful speech. He mentioned the “God-given dignity written into every human soul” and the African-American fight to end slavery, break down Jim Crow laws, end segregation, and gain the right to vote. The president also highlighted the contributions of slain Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, whose wife, Myrlie Evers, was slated to speak at the opening and whose brother, Charles Evers, was in attendance.
Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway on June 12, 1963, by a white supremacist. His killer remained free for more than three decades after two all-white juries deadlocked on his guilt. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 and died in 2002 at the age of 80.
Despite the planning, Trump still took the time to marvel at the quality of his own prose in the middle of his speech: “That’s big stuff, those are very big phrases, very big words,” he said. He also managed to talk about how much electoral success he had in Mississippi, a state that is 37 percent black and 59 percent white.
Trump’s words rang hollow, largely because of his abysmal civil rights and race record. Trump in 1989 called for five black and Latino teenagers to be given the death penalty for committing a rape of which they were later exonerated on DNA evidence and has refused to acknowledge their innocence. As president, Trump offered an equivocal response to racist violence from white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, and has frequently targeted black athletes on Twitter. He has proposed budget measures that would specifically and adversely affect minorities.
And yet Trump insisted on attending an event where his presence managed to overshadow the country’s first state-funded civil rights museum.
"He does not deserve to be in Jackson for the celebration of the civil rights museum opening," said civil rights activist and NAACP board member Amos Brown to CNN, at the NAACP’s press conference on Saturday in Jackson. The organization’s president, Derrick Johnson, dismissed Trump’s attendance of the event as “a photo opportunity.”
Before the event, the NAACP called for Trump to cancel his appearance. In a statement Johnson called his past statements and policies on civil rights enforcement “abysmal” and charged him with creating a “racially hostile climate” in America.
Elected representatives didn’t feel comfortable with Trump’s presence, because of his policies.
On Thursday, Rep. Lewis and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said they would no longer attend the museum’s opening, citing Trump as the reason for their decision. Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba skipped Saturday’s museum opening as well.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” Lewis and Thompson said in a joint statement, adding that the president’s “disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place.”
President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum. After President Trump departs, we encourage all Mississippians and Americans to visit this historic civil rights museum. https://t.co/cXo11eGHZw— John Lewis (@repjohnlewis) December 8, 2017
For Lumumba’s part, Trump’s record on civil rights was the reason he felt he couldn’t attend. “It is my appreciation for the legacy of the individuals who stand with me today, it is my appreciation for the Mississippi martyrs that are not here, the names both known and unknown, that will not allow me, that will not allow many of us standing today, to share a stage with the president; to share a stage with an individual who has not demonstrated a continuing commitment to civil rights, a continuing commitment to human rights, a continuing commitment to women's right," he said at the NAACP press conference. "It is his pompous disregard for all of those factors that will not enable us to stand with him.
Huckabee Sanders on Thursday said it was “unfortunate” that Lewis and Thompson wouldn’t join Trump in honoring the “incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history,” apparently unaware of Lewis’s role in the civil rights movement.
Of course Trump’s attendance of a civil rights museum opening was controversial
A presidential visit to a museum wouldn’t usually invoke such backlash — but Trump is no ordinary president, and his record on race is questionable at best. Vox’s P.R. Lockhart recently explained what makes this situation so different:
Trump’s entry into national politics came largely as the result of questioning the citizenship of the country's first black president, and his black outreach efforts on the campaign trail were largely limited to presenting a dystopian vision of black life to white audiences.
As president, Trump’s attempts to engage black audiences have been infrequent, and when they are made they have been almost consistently offensive. Since winning the election, Trump has frequently criticized black leaders, politicians, and other figures. Lewis found himself on the receiving end of several Trump attacks earlier this year after criticizing him. More recently, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) was dismissed as “wacky” after criticizing the president’s response to a grieving military widow.
Before heading to Mississippi on Friday, Trump held a rally in support of embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Aside from facing multiple accusation of sexual misconduct from women who were teenagers when he pursued them, Moore also recently told a black man at a campaign rally that America was last great during slavery.
It’s no wonder why so many objected to the president’s presence at the opening for the Mississippi Museum for Civil Rights. As in that struggle, actions say more than words ever could.