Civil rights museum raises leaders' hopes, suspicions

By Shelia Byrd/The Associate Press

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 build 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.
Stalled plan
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.
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 an 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.
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.
Many legislators contend the motivation behind the renewed push is irrelevant.