Trump, Rejecting Calls to Stay Away, Speaks at Civil Rights Museum

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Paired with a second museum that aims to document the state’s overall history, the civil rights museum has drawn praise from the movement’s veterans as an honest depiction of Mississippi’s past.

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was lynched in 1955 by a white mob in Money, Miss. And one of the most infamous episodes of the civil rights era took place in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights activists — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were killed while trying to register voters in the summer of 1964.

Those who made a point of skipping the president’s speech — including John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Democratic congressman from Georgia — cited his equivocal remarks after the summer’s racially tinged violence in Charlottesville, Va., and described Mr. Trump’s policies toward Mexicans, Muslims and other minorities as an insult to the museum’s purpose.

At a news conference before Air Force One touched down in Jackson, national activists and local African-American politicians said they were disappointed that the president had chosen to participate in the event.

“Today may be a grand opening, but there will be a grander opening,” said State Senator Sollie Norwood of Jackson, who declined to attend Mr. Trump’s speech. He said he was looking forward to seeing the museum after the president left. “That will be the day that all of us will walk in.”

Amos Brown, the longtime pastor of the historic Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, listed a number of times Mr. Trump had failed to speak up for civil rights causes.

“Since Donald Trump did not show up when we needed him to speak a word on behalf of blacks who have experienced police brutality,” Mr. Brown said, “he does not deserve to be in Jackson for the celebration of the civil rights museum.”

About 200 protesters assembled along Jackson’s streets, hoping to turn their backs on Mr. Trump’s motorcade as it made its way to the downtown museum from Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, named for the black civil rights activist who was shot in the back by a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. But it appeared that the motorcade took a different route.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, his widow, and Charles Evers, his brother, attended Mr. Trump’s speech, despite reports that members of the family might boycott it. Mr. Evers greeted Mr. Trump on the airport tarmac.

Mr. Trump took pains to acknowledge the death of Mr. Evers, calling him a martyr who had fought during World War II and then returned to Mississippi to fight for the “same rights and freedoms that he had defended in the war” by helping to register blacks to vote. For that work, Mr. Trump said, Mr. Evers was “assassinated by a member of the KKK.”

The president recognized Ms. Evers-Williams, whose endorsement of the museum boosted its credibility, calling her “his incredible widow,” and thanking her for carrying on “Medgar’s legacy.” He also thanked the people of Mississippi, a state, he said, “where I’ve had great success.”

Speaking later to a polite and enthusiastic crowd of about 1,800 under a chilly bright blue sky, Ms. Evers-Williams said: “Going through the museum of my history, I wept because I felt the blows. I felt the bullets. I felt the tears. I felt the cries. But I also sensed the hope.”

Presidents are often called on to reflect upon the country’s darker chapters and to inspire a better future. In 2015, President Barack Obama marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where African-Americans were beaten during “Bloody Sunday” in 1965. Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, declared in a speech that despite the progress, the “nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”

Mr. Obama occasionally grappled publicly with the country’s racial divisions, especially in the wake of the violence that erupted after police shootings of unarmed black men. Mr. Obama’s earlier comment about a white police officer’s “stupid” arrest of a black Harvard professor led to a “beer summit” in which the three men discussed the state of race relations in the country.

For Mr. Trump, race has been a more inflammatory topic. His campaign was rooted in an appeal to disaffected white voters, and his comments about Mexicans and Muslims have generated accusations of racism. His efforts to impose a travel ban on people from mostly Muslim countries have been declared racist by several federal judges, though the Supreme Court has now allowed a third version of the ban to take effect.

In August, Mr. Trump was widely condemned for saying that “both sides” were to blame for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville when white supremacists gathered to protest the city’s removal of a Confederate statue.

Invited by Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, Mr. Trump attended the event on Saturday in the hopes of helping to unify a country that has been struggling to repair its lingering racial schisms. But if he thought his presence here would prove to be a bridge, he may have been mistaken.

“He’s expressed a blatant and wanton disregard for human rights,” said Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, who skipped the museum’s opening. “He’s done so through the discriminatory policy he implements. He’s done so with respect to a failure to denounce the alt-right.”

Talamieka Brice, who helped lead the protests, said Mr. Trump’s policies and often angry remarks were evidence that the racial divisions of the civil rights struggle have not faded completely.

“The ideology that was the catalyst that keeps people demonizing others, that needs to be in a museum, and Donald Trump is evidence that it’s not,” Ms. Brice said.

Mr. Lumumba said he fully supported the museum but decided to stay away from the opening after being told that he would not be given a chance to speak.

“I would be sitting behind Donald Trump, not saying anything, looking like or appearing as if I was complicit with his representation in a moment like this,” the mayor said.

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