Civil rights museum debated again

Published 11:37 pm Monday, January 31, 2011

JACKSON (AP) — Gov. Haley Barbour’s verbal support for a civil rights museum in Mississippi’s capital has reignited debate over where to place an edifice in honor of the bloody struggle that played out across the South.

A committee of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus held a hearing Monday at the state Capitol to discuss possible locations for the museum.

However, a commission appointed by Barbour had decided in 2008 that the museum would be built at Tougaloo College in north Jackson, about 10 miles from downtown.

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During his State of the State address Jan. 11, Barbour said the museum should be built in downtown Jackson and now is a good time to move forward on the project. Lawmakers seized on the comments, and have begun work on a bond proposal to pay for the museum, which has an estimated cost of about $73 million.

Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said Monday that the governor is still discussing the project and its funding with lawmakers.

“It would be premature to comment while these discussions are ongoing,” Turner responded when asked whether Barbour would sign a bond bill.

On Monday, a pitch was made to locate the museum in Greenwood, a rural town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which is one of the most impoverished regions in the country. Still, Leflore County Supervisor Robert Moore said the region’s ties to the movement run too deep to be ignored. He said his county isn’t far from Tallahatchie County, where the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was tossed in the river after two white men had beaten him to death. The 1955 slaying is credited as the spark for the civil rights movement.

“Of course we have Emmett Till and several horrible, horrible other atrocities that happened to African-Americans in Greenwood, including it was the first location where dogs were used to stop people from registering to vote,” Moore said.

It’s not exactly clear whether the Tougaloo College site chosen by Barbour’s commission is still valid.

Tougaloo President Beverly Hogan said the school is planning to donate nine acres to the project and she questioned the current process. She said the college didn’t know about any change to the location until Barbour’s speech.

Hogan said the college is still the best site because “it’s the cradle and refuge of the movement.” Activists often stayed at the campus when no hotels would accommodate them. The school also was the site of strategic meetings.

State Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said a site in or near downtown Jackson would be better because it could handle the “critical mass” of tourists who would also shop and dine in the area during a visit to the museum. But Horhn said the focus should be on funding, not location.

“If there’s much discord on a location, that will give the adversaries who do not want to see a civil rights museum all the ammunition they need,” Horhn said.

Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, said a site recommendation would be made to the full Black Caucus and he’s hopeful it will be included in any bond bill drafted.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said the amount of the museum bond bill hasn’t been determined.

“This will be placed on the fast track,” Watson said.

The project has languished for years. After Barbour’s commission selected the site, the governor was to supposed appoint a board to begin private fundraising for the project. No board was appointed, and Barbour’s administration later said the economic downturn hampered efforts to raise money.

Now, it appears the project is back in legislators’ hands.

Rep. Walter L. Robinson, D-Bolton, urged the legislators not to get distracted or divided by the governor’s renewed push for the project. Robinson said after Tougaloo was selected as the site nearly three years ago, “no one said another word about it until the governor made his speech.”