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‘Mississippi Is Ready, Finally, to Tell the Truth.’ Inside the State’s Historic New Civil Rights Museum

6 minute read

“This is Mississippi, the middle of the iceberg. This is a tremor in the middle of the iceberg from a stone that the builders rejected,” Bob Moses, the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s Mississippi project, wrote in 1961 from a jail cell in Magnolia, Miss., where he and 11 other activists who had been trying to help fellow African Americans register to vote had been imprisoned.

Now, more than 50 years since that tremor catalyzed a seismic shift in American society, Saturday will see the grand opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum — making Mississippi the first U.S. state to have its own official state-funded civil rights museum. In eight galleries, visitors start at the beginning with the Atlantic slave trade and move through displays on the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the ’60s and the present moment, ending with a room to reflect on the modern-day offshoots of the movement. It’s a striking moment for a state that was often the violent epicenter of the fight for racial equality in the United States — and a reminder that the history to which the museum is devoted is not fully in the past, as President Trump’s plan to attend the grand opening has prompted some to consider protesting the event.

Ahead of the grand opening, TIME talked to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum’s director, Pamela Junior, about what she hopes visitors will take away from the new exhibits.

TIME: What are some of the most unique artifacts in the collection?

JUNIOR: The actual rifle that Byron De La Beckwith used to assassinate Medgar Evers is here, given to us by the Hinds County Circuit Court. The doors to Bryant’s Grocery that Emmett Till touched in August 1965, before he was lynched. It’s amazing that this young boy, 14 years old, went into a store to buy a piece of gum, never knowing this was going to happen to him later on that evening. When I saw those doors for the first time, it was hard for me to get close to them because I couldn’t reconcile with those doors.

There’s a burned cross, that’s part of the Klan exhibition. We have three Klan robes. What it’s doing is showing how the Klan would come onto the property with a small coffin, put it on your doorstep, and the next day come and put a cross in front of your house. One particular gentleman picked it up and kept it. I’m amazed, still, that people kept these artifacts. How did they know that one day there’d be a place to put it? Now there is.

The museum’s layout is circular. Why?

The circle has to do with everything being so dark that you needed to be able to come out and sit and reflect before you go back into the tunnel, as I tell people.

The civil rights movement was a very uncomfortable movement. The architect made everything very close, very tight, and I love that. You walk into a gallery and see lynching monoliths [listing the names of victims], and you hear the sound of people saying, “Girl, get off that sidewalk!” And it puts you in the moment. You hear rifles being ready to shoot, and you hear dogs barking. All of this is part of putting people in that time period. And you come out of that and into a rotunda, where there is a 37-foot-high circular sculpture called “This Little Light of Mine” that moves when you walk in. When one person walks in, it kind of flickers. The more people walk in, the more it starts dancing. And what it’s symbolizing is all of the people who came to help bring a change to Mississippi.

People are a little nervous when they come in and see images of people that have been lynched, when they the imprint of the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in shallow graves. I’ve seen crying, and people coming out to just breathe because it was so heavy. One lady told me she couldn’t breathe. I get that. That’s the dark tunnel that’s part of what Mississippi went through. We’re serious about this.

Growing up in Mississippi, what inspired you to make a career out of educating people on the history of civil rights?

When I was 11 years old, the first book I read, as far as a novel, was Black Boy by Richard Wright. Richard Wright was a genius because the same problems the black boy had in the [Jim Crow South] are the same problems happening today in the 21st century. Freedom Schools were big in Jackson so sometimes my parents would allow me to go hang out and be around students who were a part of Freedom Schools. What gave me my strength is not the information I got in school, but when I was 12 in 1970, I was walking through Jackson State campus from middle school, and a Black Panther put a black band on my arm. And that did something for me. I didn’t take that black band off for probably about three weeks. Made me feel like there something I’m supposed to be doing. It just stuck with me forever.

What does it mean for Mississippi to have the first such state-sponsored civil rights museum?

What it means is that Mississippi is ready, finally, to tell the truth. Mississippi has the best people to tell the story. It’s right here. It’s in black and white. Come and understand the people of Mississippi. Come and understand the struggle. Come and understand the folks who gave their lives up for people in Mississippi. That’s a great example for people all over the world. We’re going to help ourselves by really reading and listening and teaching our children about this history — and about mobilizing, strategizing and organizing. Movements are around us.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com