Key players get behind civil rights museum for state

By Bobby Harrison / NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Chairmen of key House and Senate committees say they would support a bond issue during the 2011 legislative session to jump-start a stalled civil rights museum in Mississippi.
“We plan on doing a bond bill this year to get it started,” said Senate Finance Chair Dean Kirby, R-Pearl. “I doubt we will fund the full amount in the first year. We never do on these projects.”
Kirby said he has seen the cost of the project estimated to be between $30 million and $70 million.
Many believe private funds could be raised to alleviate part of the cost since Mississippi played such a major role – and in many cases in the 1950s and ’60s was ground zero – in the civil rights struggle.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour renewed interest in a civil rights museum in his state of the state speech earlier this month.
Speaking to the Mississippi Legislature, Barbour said, “The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it. People from around the world would flock to see the museum and learn about the movement. … I urge you to move this museum forward as an appropriate way to do justice to the civil rights movement and to stand as a monument of remembrance and reconciliation.”
Barbour said it would be appropriate to begin work on the museum this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, who bused into the state to advocate for racial equality, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Much work already has been done on planning for a civil rights museum in the state.
In 2006, the Legislature passed a resolution to establish a study committee to look at the feasibility of establishing a civil rights museum in Mississippi. The committee was co-chaired by Sen. Hillman Frazier, D-Jackson, and then-Rep. John Reeves, R-Jackson.
Frazier said the legislative committee visited museums across the country to determine whether a civil rights museum could succeed in Jackson.
He said they visited the civil rights museums in Birmingham and Memphis, but also visited other types of museums. Frazier said he even visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, although not on state expense.
He said that the civil rights museums in Memphis and Birmingham “talked about Mississippi history. I am glad they talked about Mississippi history, but we are in a better position to tell our story.”
He said that since the efforts of the legislative study committee, Georgia has started work on a civil rights museum in Atlanta.
Frazier said the legislative committee came to the conclusion a civil rights museum would work best in downtown Jackson where other museums are located.
Plus, he said historians who visit the museum would be able to move quickly between the civil rights museum and the Archives and History Building, located downtown, where numerous documents from the era are housed.
In the midst of the work by the legislative committee, Barbour formed his own commission to look at the issue. In his 2007 state of the state speech, Barbour talked of private sector contributions to help fund a Mississippi museum.
But after the 2007 session, nothing much was accomplished. Part of the problem was that Barbour’s commission recommended a site in north Jackson near Tougaloo College, a private African-American institution that played an integral role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Others, though, supported the downtown location.
During this year’s state of the state speech, Barbour threw his support behind a downtown location next to a proposed Mississippi history museum.
He said the site was recommended to him by former Gov. William Winter, who has been a leader in recent years in racial reconciliation efforts, and by Reuben Anderson, who served as the first African-American member of the state Supreme Court.
House Ways and Means Chair Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said he believes something will be accomplished on the project during the 2011 legislative session.
“It is just a question of whether to do a single bill, how does a civil rights museum relate to a museum of history and do we try to finance it all at one time,” he said.
“I think in the end we will have the museum financed.”
Many believe this is the year to get the museum off the ground. Barbour, a potential presidential candidate, received criticism in December because of his defense of the White Citizens Council in his hometown of Yazoo City.
White Citizens Council groups sprang up in the 1950s across the state to defend segregation, often through economic pressure.
It has been perceived that Barbour has taken several steps to try to ease the impact of those comments, including renewing his support for a civil rights museum and attending a Martin Luther King Day ceremony on Monday.
If Barbour does not work to block a bond bill, and with both Kirby and Watson supporting such a bill, the project could be started this year.
“The stars may finally be aligned,” Frazier said with a trace of a smile.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@journalinc.com.