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Black lawmakers may skip civil rights museum opening in protest of Trump

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press, file

A monolith lists the names, dates, and rationales for the lynching of African-Americans in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Miss.

By Astead W. Herndon Globe Staff 

WASHINGTON — Black civil rights leaders, angered by a White House they view as racially divisive, are considering boycotts and protests as they wrestle with how to respond to President Trump’s planned attendance this week at the opening of a civil rights museum in Mississippi.

The NAACP has called for Trump to stay away from the ceremony and is openly encouraging members in Mississippi to boycott the grand opening ceremonies if Trump shows up as scheduled.

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Lawmakers who are scheduled to speak at the event, including Representatives Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and John Lewis of Georgia, himself a civil rights hero, have privately discussed dropping out of the event because of Trump, Thompson told the Globe.

“The civil rights marchers who are being honored would turn over in their grave knowing that somebody who’s stood for that stuff would be in attendance,” Thompson said. “The question is, do I want to be associated with someone who is that narrow in focus.”

The extraordinary dispute threatens to mar a moment of pride for Jackson, the state capital, which has a majority black population and is scheduled to host the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum on Saturday. The dispute also points up a larger debate within the black community — engage Trump, at the risk of normalizing his divisive presidency, or put up uniform resistance.

In the view of many black leaders, a presidential snub is justified because of Trump’s history on issues of racial justice and division. The most recent examples they cite are his partial defense of white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, when he called some of them “very fine people,’’ and his harsh criticism of black NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Thompson, whose district includes Jackson, said he has received many requests from constituents not to attend any Saturday observances with Trump. He said he and Lewis will make a decision on whether to boycott by Thursday.

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Trump was invited to the museum opening by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican who at times served as a 2016 campaign surrogate for Trump. Bryant said in a tweet Wednesday that Mississippi should be “proud” Trump has agreed to speak.

Mississippi had a history museum that was partially destroyed following Hurricane Katrina. Saturday’s ceremony is for the reopening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which depicts important moments from the state’s history as a hub for the fight for racial equality. With exhibits highlighting Mississippi residents who died in the civil rights movement, the museum hopes to highlight how the “civil rights movement in Mississippi has served as an example for movements all over the world,” according to a statement from its founders. Museum officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Rogelio V. Solis)/Associated Press

Ellie Dahmer (foreground) wife of Vernon Dahmer of Hattiesburg, who was killed in 1966 by the Ku Klux Klan, their daughter Bettie Dahmer, and an older brother Harold, right, viewed some of the artifacts in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

Lewis “expressed a concern of how his presence would be perceived if Donald Trump is also in attendance,” Thompson said. “John Lewis is a civil rights icon, he put his life on the line. And a lot of those criticisms that I hear [from Trump] about kneeling, Lewis did as a student.”

Lewis’s office did not offer a comment. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment. Earlier this week, when asked about the prospect of protests during Trump’s appearance at the civil rights museum, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the president condemns “all forms of racism, bigotry, and violence,” so there would be no reason to protest.

“I think that [any protests] would be, honestly, very sad,” Sanders said Tuesday at the White House. “I think this is something that should bring the country together to celebrate the opening of this museum and highlighting the civil rights movement and the progress that we’ve made. And I would hope that those individuals would join in that celebration instead of protesting it.

The quandary over how to react to Trump’s visit is part of a larger debate that has roiled the black community for the last year. Trump won just 8 percent of the black vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Leaders have been divided about how to deal with Trump, whose remarks continue to alienate people of color and to unify liberals against him.

In the early days of the administration, many influential leaders said the best course of action was to meet with the president if the opportunity arose, in an attempt to find areas of common ground. In one example, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland met with Trump in the Oval Office. Education officials from historically black colleges and universities also packed Trump’s office in March, over the objections of many of their students.

“I was not there for any foolishness,” David Wilson, president of Morgan State in Baltimore, said at the time. “I was there to” highlight the importance of the schools.

But those sorts of accommodating attitudes have been more scarce in recent months.

Trump’s comments after Charlottesville had long-lasting reverberations. The president has continued to pick fights with prominent black figures who have spoken out against his presidency, including NBA superstar Steph Curry, ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, and Lavar Ball, the outspoken father of college basketball player Liangelo Ball, who was detained and then released after shoplifting in China.

Now, some liberal figures see no use in attempting to engage with Trump, even when he is performing rather customary presidential activities, such as visiting black historical sites or attending museum openings.

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

An interactive electronic exhibit and the mixed media collage highlight the struggle of James Meredith, an African-American veteran to enroll and attend the then all-white University of Mississippi in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

“Trump wouldn’t rent to black tenants, refused to condemn white supremacists, founded voter suppression commission . . . everything he does dishonors civil rights movement,” tweeted Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

Derrick Johnson, the newly installed NAACP president, said his group, after an outcry from members, decided to support a boycott of Trump’s visit to Mississippi and release a statement asking Trump not to attend.

“I think all civil rights organizations hope our elected officials have redeeming qualities and would, at some point, support the humanity of all citizens,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately this president has not sent a signal, or shown a willingness to do so.”

Word of Trump’s pending visit sent black residents of Mississippi into a frenzy of debate, said state lawmakers who spoke to the Globe. Many were upset that the president’s visit would overshadow the historic occasion. Already, fewer people have been talking about the museum’s opening than Trump himself, the lawmakers said.

“Of all the people to invite to this event, you chose that one?” said Jeramey Anderson, a black state representative for Mississippi’s 110th House district.

“The fact that we’re allowing the president’s visit to deter from celebrating the museum is a mistake,” Anderson said.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is dedicated to telling the story of the state’s central role in the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century. Along with the adjacent museum of Mississippi history, the complex is 200,000 square feet, the equivalent of more than three football fields.

After its grand opening this Saturday, visitors can see artifacts from some of the greatest outrages of the civil rights and Jim Crow era, including the gun that was used to kill civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963, and a door from Bryant’s Grocery Store in Money, Miss., where a 14-year-old black teenager named Emmett Till was accused in 1955 of whistling at a white woman.

Till, in what would become a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement, was abducted, tortured, and murdered just days later.

Earlier this year, Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to a historian that she fabricated the whistling claim. No one was ever convicted for Till’s death.

Astead W.
Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.