Analysis: Museum project draws hopes, suspicions

Not all lawmakers are convinced a Mississippi civil rights museum will finally get off the ground, despite the speed at which a proposal is making its way through the Legislature.

Their doubts can be heard in floor debate and committee meetings. Rep. Jim Evans, a black Democrat from Jackson, told his colleagues last week, "Let’s don’t be hoodwinked," as he unsuccessfully tried to change the location of the proposed museum to the Farish Street area, a once-thriving black business district in downtown Jackson.

Evans says he still remembers how the museum project was first broached by lawmakers in 2006, then taken over and, many lawmakers think, abandoned by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour, mulling a presidential run in 2012, is again supporting the project. A bill that has passed the House would provide $55 million to construct a civil rights museum and an adjacent state history museum a few blocks from the Capitol.

Rep. Walter Robinson, a black Democrat from Bolton, said he supports the project, but is disturbed that nothing happened until Barbour mentioned it last month in his State of the State speech.

"If he hadn’t said anything about the museum, we wouldn’t be discussing it," said Robinson. "It’s no secret, if it didn’t go downtown, we wouldn’t get it. We’ve already been hoodwinked and I don’t think he’s through."

Many contend such suspicion is warranted, based on the project’s path at the Capitol.

In 2006, Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, sponsored a resolution creating a study committee about the feasibility of a museum. The committee released a report in December 2006 listing Jackson as the museum site. Later that year, Barbour appointed his own commission to consider developing a civil rights museum.

Barbour proposed $500,000 for museum planning in 2007, a state election year.

In 2008, Barbour’s commission recommended Tougaloo College, about 10 miles from downtown Jackson, as the museum site. Barbour said private donations would be sought for the project. He said he’d appoint a board to move the project forward, but he never did.

Barbour, who’s recognized for his political connections and fundraising abilities, said the recession dried up private donations.

There wasn’t any movement on the project until the State of the State address in January, when Barbour said the museum should become a reality. His comments came after critics said Barbour, in a magazine interview, had minimized the problems of Mississippi’s civil rights era.

"All of a sudden, he’s seen the light," Robinson said, referring to the timing of Barbour’s emphasis on the museum.

Rep. Greg Snowden, a white Republican from Meridian, said it’s unfair to say the governor’s interest in the museum isn’t genuine. Snowden, who voted for the bond bill, said Barbour’s been supportive of other cultural projects, including the B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center in Indianola.

"Just because he may be running for president, everything he says is subject to critique," Snowden said.

Many legislators contend the motivation behind the renewed push is irrelevant.

Rep. Omeria Scott, D-Laurel, said Mississippi could soon have the opportunity to lead the way in the exhibition of the bloody struggle to dismantle a segregated society that oppressed black people by denying them voting rights, access to an adequate education and an overall quality of life.

"The government did all that," Scott said. "The same state in 2011 is moving forward to exhibit for the world to come and see how far we’ve come as a state."

Scott said she hopes there eventually will be a repository of artifacts that scholars could use for research. She and others also cite the potential tourist dollars the museum could attract.

Scott said an even more important issue is that the museum would be a way to accurately tell the history of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi "because we tend to have revisionist history."

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