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Mississippi Civil Rights Museum tells authentic stories from the movement

FREDDIE ALLEN | 8/6/2018, 2:37 p.m.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1966, civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer Sr. was jolted from his sleep ...
The atrium of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

(NNPA) – In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1966, civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer Sr. was jolted from his sleep as members of the Ku Klux Klan surrounded his house, just north of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Dahmer was a Black landowner who had been actively working to register Blacks to vote and, in some cases, he even paid their “poll” taxes. It was enough to earn a Black man a death sentence in the South.

That morning, the Klansmen bullets ripped through the darkness, splintering wood and shattering glass as they fired on Dahmer’s house. One Klansmen hurled a Molotov cocktail through the window, most likely with the hopes of burning Dahmer and his family alive.

As smoke and flames engulfed his home, Dahmer grabbed his shotgun and blasted his way out, creating a diversion as the rest of his family fled into the woods. Later that day, Dahmer died from smoke inhalation at an area hospital.

A few days later, Dahmer’s voter registration card arrived in the mail.

“These are the kinds of stories we talk about in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum,” said Pamela Junior, the museum’s director. “We tell people all the time: Museums are living and breathing places.”

She lamented that, oftentimes, the history of the Civil Rights Movement is told through the narrow lens of a few key figures, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. She said that it was important that people know that Mississippi was ground zero for the Movement; the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum helps to tell the stories of the people that were there.

“What we want to do is make sure that the stories are told authentically,” Junior said. “We have our own native son, Medgar Wiley Evers. We have Fannie Lou Hamer, June Johnson, Owen Brooks … local people who made up the movement.”

She said that it was also important to show that civil rights leaders were ordinary people, yet they still managed to have a significant impact on the course of American history.

“So, to see something so powerful that these regular, poor people did to make things happen in the state of Mississippi is awesome,” Junior continued.

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened on Dec. 9, 2017. The Clarion Ledger reported that the Dahmer family donated a truck that had been shot during the 1966 attack to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

The museum promotes a greater understanding of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and shares the stories of the movement that changed the world.

A prepared statement that described the museum said that visitors could witness the freedom struggle in eight interactive galleries that show the systematic oppression of Black Mississippians and their fight for equality that transformed the state and nation.

“Seven of the galleries encircle a central space called, ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ There, a dramatic sculpture glows brighter and the music of the Movement swells as visitors gather,” the statement read.

Each museum gallery highlights a specific sub-topic or period. Gallery 1 defines civil and human rights; Gallery 2 focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction; Gallery 3 highlights civil rights activists and shares the stories of a Mississippi movement that changed the world; Gallery 4 peels back the layers of a segregated society; Gallery 5 showcases the sacrifices and the successes of the 1960s; Gallery 6 takes a deep dive into the Freedom Summer and local movements in Mississippi (1963-1964); and Gallery 7 tells the story of Black Empowerment from 1965 to the early 1970s.