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Inviting Donald Trump to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is about maintaining a white version of black history

Governor Phil Bryant’s decision to invite President Donald Trump to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum this Saturday is a player in the larger issue of how we teach black history and contextualize the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi and across the nation.

I am not simply exploring the issue of whether race education is present or not in American institutions, but what actually constitutes that education: Whose histories are being told? How are they being contextualized? What purpose do they serve? Who makes these decisions? To what extent is race emphasized or downplayed in the importance of historical accounts? The answers to these questions are highly politicized and highly racialized.

Since our country was founded, the politics of narrating racial history has been controlled by powerful white leaders, from textbook writers to President Donald Trump and his administration, who have a particular stake in maintaining a white version of black history.

The Trump University Race Curriculum

In tandem with its outright policy assaults on equity and justice for black and brown people, the Trump administration has been extremely negligent in its characterization of histories and contemporary realities for people of color.

Following the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, President Trump indicated that there were “very fine people on both sides” – the same language used by Southern segregationists during the Civil Rights movement to criticize the protests carried out by groups such as the NAACP (a group which was even illegal in Alabama at the time, accused of stoking racial unrest).

Two months later, in October 2017, President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly characterized the Civil War, in which the South fought and lost to preserve its slave economy, as “the lack of an ability to compromise.”

This week, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), a prominent veteran of the Civil Rights movement who was assaulted by police officers during the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Mississippi’s sole black congressman, decided not to speak at Saturday’s opening, asserting that “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.” In response, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.”

In this specific moment of reshaping history to cater to Trump’s racialized power structure, Sanders attempts to separate Congressmen Lewis and Thompson – themselves prominent figures in black history – from the reality of that history itself by contrasting these “members of Congress” from the “Civil Right leaders” of which “the president [is] honoring”.

In reality, these actions by Lewis and Thompson are a continuum of the stands against injustice made during the Civil Rights movement; President Trump is that injustice.

Echoing the White House’s remarks, Trump-supporters – like the one below – shared the following photoshopped graphic across social media platforms, calling Lewis a “crybaby,” consistent with historically-contingent caricatures of African Americans who protest injustice as unappreciative of “white graciousness”:

It is clear that the purpose of Trump’s visit is to transform what is supposed to be a celebration of black sacrifice and resilience in our state into an affirmation of white benevolence.

Some black Mississippians nonetheless accuse the museum itself of also affirming white benevolence. As reported by The Washington Post, Kenneth Stokes, the longest-serving city council member of Jackson, said the following:

“In the blackest state in the United States of America, you don’t have one black elected official statewide,” said Kenneth Stokes, the longest serving city council member of Jackson, according to a report in the Washington Post. “Look at these houses, gutted, falling down, it’s like it’s a hundred years ago. How can you have a museum that says this is in the past? It’s not a museum for poor black people, not if they’re charging that high fee. It’s for whites to make themselves feel better.”

Governor Phil Bryant’s invitation to President Trump only strengthens that sentiment, one that permeates our nation’s schools and is affirmed at the highest office in the land.

Civil Rights Education in Mississippi Schools

The Mississippi Civil Rights Education Commission was legislatively formed in 2006 and later put forth recommendations which were incorporated into the Mississippi Department of Education’s 2011 Social Studies Framework. In its report Teaching the Movement: The State Standards We Deserve, the Southern Poverty Law Center even pointed to these standards for having the “Best Practice” of integrating Civil Rights education across grade levels. These standards include the following language:

“This education should lead learners to understand and appreciate issues such as social justice, power relations, diversity, mutual respect, and civic engagement. Students should acquire a working knowledge of tactics engaged by civil rights activists to achieve social change. Among these are: demonstrations, resistance, organizing, and collective action/unity.”

However, these standards are not being realized across the state. The Clarion Ledger recently published a piece by Sierra Mannie, a University of Mississippi graduate from Canton, entitled “Why Students are Ignorant About the Civil Rights Movement.” Mannie writes that although the state has standards in place for teaching Civil Rights history, “all of the state’s 148 school districts rely on textbooks published before the model standards appeared.” She reports that in one prominent textbook, Mississippi: The Magnolia State (the textbook used in my own high school Mississippi Studies course), lynching supporter Governor James K. Vardaman is mentioned sixty-nine times while the Freedom Riders are never mentioned, although they are heavily focused on in state standards.

As reported by Mannie, history teachers who understand the importance of the Civil Rights movement and highlighting black leadership take on an extra burden from the state, which is not ensuring that school districts have the funding to purchase updated textbooks and supplementary materials.

Although I am not ignorant to the fact that white supremacy manifests itself in a multitude of ways, by ensuring that these standards of Civil Rights education are realized in our state’s classrooms, Mississippians may be able to better understand the remarkable offense of President Trump’s visit. Someone who considers Lewis a “crybaby” for protesting might come to understand understand the importance of “demonstrations, resistance, organizing, and collective action/unity” in today’s racial climate.

The Future of History

If one of the purposes of recording history is to make more just future decisions, our state and nation is failing at doing so. President Trump’s invitation to speak at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the subsequent, racialized attacks on Congressmen Lewis and Thompson present a clear, urgent problem for the way that white Mississippians and white Americans understand Civil Rights history and race itself.

In the past, The Winter Institute, which was largely responsible for the creation of the 2006 Civil Rights Education commission, has done advocacy work for racial curriculum/teaching reform, even hosting an “Annual Civil Rights Education Summit for Teachers.”

Today, groups like the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center are working on this change in the way that we teach our youth to understand race and racial histories. Nonetheless, in the current state of race relations in the Magnolia State and across the nation, it is increasingly clear that we require a movement in educational reform to achieve a better understanding of the histories and realities of black and brown folks –not from the lectern of Donald J. Trump.

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