JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi breaks ground Thursday on side-by-side museums that are expected to break ground of their own in how they depict the Southern state once rocked by racial turmoil, one promising a frank focus on civil rights and the other a sweep of history from pre-European settlements to Elvis Presley and more.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History — two museums under the same roof— are scheduled to open in Jackson in 2017, the state's bicentennial.
Hank Holmes, director of the state Department of Archives and History, said the exhibits won't minimize the parts of the past that some might consider embarrassing or uncomfortable.
"There is no sugar coating," Holmes said.
The two museums will have more than 200,000 square feet combined and are to be built not far from the Capitol in Jackson. The state has committed $40 million, and Holmes said officials are trying to raise $14 million in private donations.
The civil rights museum, focusing on 1945-70, will display the rifle that a white supremacist used in 1963 to kill Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP leader whose slaying helped propel the struggle for equality to national attention. The rifle has been on temporary display the past few months at the state archives building, next door to the future museums' site, as part of an exhibit commemorating Evers' legacy and the 50th anniversary of his death.
The civil rights museum will have a display about the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was said to have whistled at a white woman in a rural Mississippi grocery store. Till was kidnapped, badly beaten and shot in the head, and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Till's mother allowed photos of his brutalized body to be published, galvanizing the fledgling civil rights movement.
The same museum will focus on the "Mississippi Burning" killings of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County in June 1964. And it will include exhibits devoted to people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who pushed for voting rights for all citizens in the 1960s and '70s.
Democratic state Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson was among the Legislative Black Caucus members who worked for years to bring a civil rights museum to fruition. He said the museums are a project that politicians, black and white, would have been reluctant to push a generation ago.
"For so many years, we were so ashamed of our history," Frazier said, speaking about Mississippians of all races.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum joins other facilities across the nation in addressing America's complex history of race relations. The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 in Memphis, Tenn., at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In Alabama, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened in 1992. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture is scheduled to open in 2015 in the nation's capital.
Like many Deep South states, Mississippi had segregated schools and public facilities until the 1960s and 1970s — facilities that people in power once falsely labeled "separate but equal." Holmes said African-Americans' stories will be integrated into both museums, not simply segregated into the civil rights segment.
The Museum of Mississippi History will include information on the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian civilizations, which were thriving before European settlers arrived. It will recognize the diverse groups that shaped the state, including Chinese who settled in the Delta's agricultural flatlands. It also is to include exhibits on slavery, the Civil War and the Jim Crow era when laws imposed racial segregation in many public places in the U.S.