Friday, October 26, 2018

Mississippi Revisited

Eleven years ago, I visited Mississppi for the first time. I was working as a curatorial assistant at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, and I chose Jackson as my location to staff on our 25-state National Tour because my Oberlin friend Sarah was working there as an oral historian for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

Even then, my understanding of Mississippi history, and my sense for the importance of the Jewish pursuit of Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world") intertwined. As a thirteen-year-old bat mitzvah, I had written a "hero report" about my father's cousin, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, a martyr of the Civil Rights Movement. Schwerner was killed, along with fellow CORE organizers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, by the Ku Klux Klan outside Philadelphia, Mississipi. The young men had been sent to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, where they had met with church leaders to organize a "Freedom School" a month prior. Freedom Schools were designed to help Mississippi's disenfranchised black community acquire the skills necessary to pass the discriminatory literacy tests required by the state for voter registration. Mickey Schwerner was 24 years old when he was killed.

I was 24 years old in 2007, and I found the quiet timelessness of Jackson's November landscape spooky. I did not imagine that I would return to the streets of that southern capital where people had battled for the soul of America 40 years before. 

Rotunda of the Old Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi
Earlier this month, an opportunity came to revisit this unsettling place. The Southeastern Museums Conference met in Jackson, and the new Civil Rights Museum steps from the Old Capitol was the professional community's pride and joy. The pre-conference workshop sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums' Education Committee (EdCom) took place at the auditorium shared by the "Two Mississippi Museums," the Civil Rights and History Museums built side-by-side. In fact, the seeds for the creation of this unique partnership between a state museum focused on the breadth of Mississippi's human experiences and a topical museum focused on its greatest challenge were sewn not long after my first visit to the city.


The Civil Rights Museum's dynamic director and team of dedicated educators took us on a rapid tour through its galleries that, thanks to the talents of the staff and the genius of its design team of Hillferty and Associates and Monadnock Media, skirted the line between evocative experience and sensory overload. After coming through the Jim Crow gallery, where monuments to lynching victims stood like trees beneath looming racist images and slogans, I found myself in a space of light and music, right across from Mickey Schwerner's name emblazoned on a memorial wall to the movement's many martyrs.  As "This Little Light of Mine" played in syncrony with ribbons of light along a giant fiber sculpture, I gave in to emotion.  I let the tears run down my cheeks. I was moved by so much that day-- by the stories told in the new museum; by Mississippi's commitment to facing hard truths; by the power of my profession and its dedication to healing the world through evidence-based narrative encounters.
"This Little Light of Mine" Installation at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner's names on the wall

Museums are not places to find all the answers, but they can be places to ask hard questions. They can provide the kind of inspiration that can only be created by humans working together. At the moment, the MHHE stands poised to launch a new traveling exhibit called Enduring Tension: (En)countering Antisemitism in Every Age. At the heart of the exhibit is the notion that Jewish experiences, and Jewish values, can inspire everyone to pursue justice, year after year, in every place and time. In the words of Torah, Parshah Shoftim, "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof." "Justice, justice, shall you pursue." The road is hard, but the journey is necessary.

On our way to Jackson, my colleagues and I stopped at the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The effort to remember American lynching victims is monumental and impressive. Above, you can see the ubiquitous memorial water feature. 




No comments: