clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Trump’s Mississippi Civil Rights Museum visit is so controversial

Black lawmakers tried working with Trump. Now they don’t even want to be in the room with him.

Interior of Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum has been decades in the making, but its opening has been overshadowed by the president’s upcoming visit.
Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty

A presidential visit to a museum typically doesn’t stir up controversy. But when Donald Trump is the president and the museum is one that chronicled the struggles of the civil rights era, controversy is nearly inevitable.

Trump is scheduled to attend the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson on Saturday morning, prompting a number of civil rights groups, activists, and politicians to protest and request that the president cancel his appearance.

On Thursday, a pair of black lawmakers — civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) — said they would no longer attend the museum’s opening, citing Trump specifically as the reason for their decision. “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” the politicians noted in a joint statement. Local Mississippi political figures, including former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba have also backed out of attending the event in recent days.

“I believe that Trump’s presence is a distraction. His policies don’t reflect his statements that this is a movement that will bring people together,” Lumumba told the Jackson Clarion Ledger Friday. “Trump has not demonstrated a continuing dedication to the ideals the civil rights movement upholds.” Lumumba will instead join Thompson and NAACP President Derrick Johnson for a separate press conference that will take place during the museum opening.

The White House has strongly defended the president’s appearance at the museum, telling reporters this week that the event “should be something that brings the country together.” Shortly after Lewis and Thompson pulled out of the event, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters it was "unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the President in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history” — a statement that was odd to some observers given Lewis’s role in the civil rights movement.

By Thursday evening, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant had released a statement clarifying that Trump’s appearance would not include a public address, and would be limited to a tour of the museum and remarks before an audience of “civil rights veterans, museum patrons and elected officials.”

That the prospect of Trump’s appearance led to such a swift backlash shouldn't be surprising. After all, this is not the first time the president has been criticized for his limited understanding of civil rights history, and he’s come under fire before for making photo ops out of meetings with black political leaders and other prominent figures. But the speed and tone of the reactions suggest feelings about Trump’s appearances have changed over the past 11 months, particularly in the wake of the president’s widely panned response to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer.

While several black lawmakers earlier this year expressed openness to dealing with the administration, Trump’s failure to follow up with legislators, the pursuit of policies that would negatively impact black communities, and direct attacks on members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other black figures have left black politicians skeptical of the administration’s interest in civil rights issues. That skepticism is enough to keep many of them away from Mississippi on Saturday.

The Mississippi museum opening was poised to be a straightforward event. Then Trump was added to the guest list.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum — the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country — has been years in the making. Efforts to secure funding and support for a civil rights museum in the state legislature were introduced in the early 2000s and languished for years, but kicked into high gear in 2011. When the civil rights museum opens Saturday, coinciding with the state’s 200th anniversary, it will actually be part of a pair of new museums, sharing a campus with the Museum of Mississippi History.

The civil rights museum has long been viewed with skepticism among some of the state’s black residents, who have questioned if, in a state that defends keeping a Confederate battle emblem on its state flag, it would tell an honest history of the fight for civil rights in Mississippi.

But early reviews have been largely positive, according to the Washington Post: “The museum presents a searing catalogue of bombings, small daily terrors, grinding humiliations, and rousing odes to the power of community organizing.” A number of local and national leaders, including activist Myrlie Evers-Williams (widow of Medgar Evers, a Mississippi civil rights activist and NAACP state leader gunned down by a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963), were scheduled to appear at the opening alongside Lewis, who was originally slated to give a keynote address.

But things changed when the White House confirmed earlier this week that Trump, who had been invited to the museum opening months ago by Gov. Bryant, would also be present. Critics immediately called for the president not to attend, with the NAACP releasing a statement that called the planned visit an “affront to the veterans of the civil rights movement.” Protests were planned. For the past week, the focus has been more on Trump and less on the museum and the struggle that led to its creation.

Usually, a president visiting a museum wouldn’t receive this level of attention. But 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.

Trump has also repeatedly shown a lack of understanding of civil rights history and how it connects to the present. During his weekly address last week, Trump honored Rosa Parks for her “courageous” protest, while continuing to criticize NFL players for their protests against police violence and racial inequality. He’s spoken about the importance of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., while decrying voter fraud and creating an election integrity commission stacked with figures eager to pass stricter voting laws, which are often used to disenfranchise minorities.

Before visiting the civil rights museum on Saturday, Trump will hold a rally in support of controversial Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, a candidate who calls NFL protesters lawbreakers and who told a black man at a September campaign rally that America was last great during slavery.

The Trump administration has also been criticized for its policy decisions, many of which, from the expansion of immigration enforcement and the criminal justice system more broadly to the rolling back of Obamacare and the dismantling of affordable housing, would come down hardest on communities of color.

It isn’t lost on his critics that Trump will be visiting a civil rights museum built in the poorest, blackest state in the country. Bennie Thompson, a US representative for Mississippi, said as much earlier this week, writing in a statement that the president’s policies have harmed black and other marginalized communities. "His unfair budget cuts in agriculture, education, health care and housing disproportionately impacts people of color and is viewed by many as an act reminiscent of Jim Crow policies of the South," Thompson said.

Black politicians were open to meeting with Trump earlier this year but have cooled on him since

Shortly after assuming office in January, Trump held a number of highly publicized meetings with black public figures and politicians. In February, for example, he started Black History Month with a “listening session” that included several of his most loyal black supporters. At the end of the same month, he hosted the presidents of dozens of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Oval Office, and pledged to improve upon the Obama administration's efforts to support their institutions.

In March, Trump again sought to host a large number of black leaders in the White House, this time promising to meet with the entire Congressional Black Caucus. But caucus leadership feared that the administration’s desire to have the 49-member caucus there would lead to a meeting that was focused more on optics than substance, and instead sent a handful of members — all caucus leaders — to meet with the president. “This will be a serious meeting, not a photo opportunity,” Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) said. Shortly after, caucus leaders said that they hoped to continue working with the administration, telling reporters that “it was a meeting where both sides listened and where we were candid about disagreements.”

As the Boston Globe’s Astead Herndon notes, when these meetings occurred, black figures often defended their interactions with the president as seeking to find ways to help the black community. But as the year went on, and Trump’s policy agenda began to take shape, the meetings no longer seemed productive. "Based on actions taken by you and your administration since that meeting, it appears that our concerns, and your stated receptiveness to them, fell on deaf ears," Richmond explained in a June letter declining a follow-up meeting with the administration.

A White House summit for HBCUs was downsized significantly weeks after Trump infamously said there were “very fine people on both sides” of white supremacist-fueled violence in Charlottesville earlier this year. Just a few months before, in May, he had suggested that federal funding for HBCUs was unconstitutional.

The Mississippi museum opening isn’t exactly the same as these examples. Lewis and Trump have been trading barbs for some time, and that relationship is unlikely to change. But coming in the wake of Charlottesville, Trump’s dismissive response to a black military widow, and his ongoing attacks on black athletes, it still feels like a tipping point, reflecting an increasing skepticism of an administration that was already dealing with plenty of it.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.