SID SALTER: Special session's a chance to do the right thing on museums

By Sid Salter

Gov. Haley Barbour announced Thursday his intention to call a special session of the Legislature on Monday to deal with the question of funding a state civil rights museum and a state history museum.
The announcement was terse: “The Legislature will be returning on Monday to complete the budget. While they are here, I will call a special session for the Legislature to consider funding the Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History. These museums will enhance Mississippi’s image and play a critical role in education and tourism.”
A special session gives the Legislature one more opportunity to do the right thing in terms of the civil rights museum. As outlined in a prior column, this is an issue that’s unfamiliar territory for Barbour in that he’s in political lockstep with the House Democratic leadership and battling his usually loyal Republican political allies in the state Senate.
The legislative leadership initially agreed on the issue of $30 million in bonds to finance construction of the two museums in Jackson. But Barbour’s Republican Senate allies balked at using solely public funds to build the museums without a contingent requirement that private matching funds of essentially 50 cents for each state dollar be raised prior to construction.
Barbour has no problem with a private sector contingency, but not for construction. Barbour supports a private sector contingency for acquiring collections and procuring major exhibits.
What is lost in the political shuffle on this issue is that Barbour 2012 presidential aspirations don’t matter a whit as to whether Mississippi should establish a civil rights museum. Barbour will be out of office long before the museum opens and will have failed or succeeded in a presidential bid in 2012 as well.
The most specious of arguments about the civil rights museum is: “What are Haley Barbour’s motives in supporting this effort?” It is an argument that either assumes that Barbour doesn’t possess the ability to recognize the moral impetus to fund the museum or the historical tourism and economic development value without an underlying political motive.
Again, the counter to that argument is simple. So what? Who cares?
Mississippi was the last state to abolish slavery and it took us until 1995 to get that done – 130 years after the Civil War.
It took Mississippi 41 years to convict anyone on state charges in the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County.
It took Mississippi 31 years to convict Byron De La Beckwith on state charges in the 1963 assassination of NAACP Field Director Medgar Evers.
Now, instead of embracing the fact that for whatever reason the political stars appear to be in alignment for the state to make a positive step forward in acknowledging the state’s pivotal role in the civil rights movement and in honoring the heroes of that movement, it appears that some on both the political right and the political left in state want to sacrifice that momentum in the interests of partisan politics.
As a conservative white Republican from Mississippi, Barbour would have been attacked on his racial views with or without his own missteps and anyone who thinks that his support of a state-funded civil rights museum will divert or stop those attacks is living in a fool’s paradise. To the contrary, Barbour’s support for the museum will now be dissected as a cynical political strategy and nothing more.
That’s sad, but it’s true.
Yet all that political drawing room debate ignores the more central questions: Should Mississippians fund a civil rights museum? Is it the right thing to do? Can it draw private sector support after construction and – in the context of public museums – can it be self-sustaining while it contributes to better race relations?
The logical answer to all those questions is an unqualified yes.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.