From Humanities: New Museums Confront Mississippi History

The ceiling sculpture, “This Little Light of Mine,” is the focus of the center gallery at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The chess set is so small, it’s easy to miss in a case crowded with other artifacts in the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

The pieces were fashioned from white bread and spit by Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver during her time in Parchman prison. The pieces—pawns roughly similar to a Hershey’s kiss and the knights and queens most recognizable by their distinctive shapes—bear the seams of tiny bits of bread, molded and pushed into place and dried, the darker pieces marked with blood. On a “board” scribbled in pencil, the set helps illuminate the larger story of determination and injustice in the movement that changed a state and a nation.

The country’s first state-owned civil rights museum and the Museum of Mississippi History opened December 9, 2017, capping the state’s bicentennial and drawing more than 25,000 visitors in the first month.

Funded by $90 million from the Mississippi Legislature and an additional $19 million in private donations for exhibits and endowments, the two museums together cover 200,000 square feet. A lobby links the two, which share an auditorium, classroom space, cafe, community room, and a shop in downtown Jackson. The museums complement each other with a complete look at Mississippi’s past—confronting the pain and celebrating the progress. Richly layered exhibits and interactive displays engage on a historic and a human scale with compelling artifacts, images, art, sound, settings, and media.

The civil rights museum focuses on the period from 1945 to 1976, when Mississippi was ground zero for the civil rights movement. The sometimes violent, often valiant history of Mississippians’ struggle against racism and oppression unfolds in stories of segregation, integration, intimidation, murder, marches, voting gains, and strength.

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