President Donald Trump has honored figures of the civil rights movement, some famous, some not, at a ceremony that exposed stark divisions among Americans about his commitment to that legacy.
Mr. Trump on Saturday toured the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the adjacent Museum of Mississippi, both in Jackson. Outside, demonstrators protested his presence, some holding signs that said “Make America Civil Again” and “Lock Him Up” and others shouting “No Trump, no hate, no KKK in the USA.” During the opening ceremony, about 25 people stood silently with Confederate battle flag stickers covering their mouths.
Mr. Trump spent about 30 minutes at the museums, gave a 10-minute speech to select guests inside and flew back to his Florida estate, skipping the dedication ceremony held outside on a chilly day.
In a deliberate voice and rarely diverting from his prepared words, the president sought to honor the famous and the anonymous for their efforts on behalf of freedom and equality. He did not acknowledge the anger his participation had sparked leading up to the dedication.
“The civil rights museum records the oppression, cruelty and injustice inflicted on the African-American community, the fight to bring down Jim Crow and end segregation, to gain the right to vote and to achieve the sacred birthright of equality,” he said. “And it’s big stuff. That’s big stuff.”
Mr. Trump has been accused of harboring racial animosity, and critics cite his blaming of “both sides” for deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer. Mr. Trump has also relentlessly criticized NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality largely directed at African-American males.
Mr. Trump opened his presidential campaign by branding Mexicans as criminals, and while campaigning called for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. after a deadly gun attack in San Bernardino, California.
The national president of the NAACP and the mayor of Mississippi’s capital city said they kept their distance from Mr. Trump because of his “pompous disregard” for the values embodied by the civil rights movement.
Derrick Johnson, head of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, and Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said at a news conference Saturday, that they looked forward to a “grander opening” of the museum that they can attend.
“We will never cede the stage to an individual who will fight against us,” Johnson said. “We will not allow the history of those who sacrificed to be tarnished for political expediency.”
Johnson and Lumumba spoke to about 100 supporters, including some who participated in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, at Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center. Once the first public school built for African-Americans in Jackson, it’s now a museum to black history and culture.
Lumumba called Mr. Trump to task for “his pompous disregard for all of those factors that will not enable us to stand with him today.”
The state’s attorney general, Jim Hood, criticized Republican Gov. Phil Bryant for inviting Mr. Trump. “It threw cold water in the face of people who fought the battles for civil rights,” Hood said.
Bryant, who introduced President Trump, spoke of “the emotion that comes over you in waves as you see the past, the struggle, the conflict. I’m so very proud today that the president of the United States was here to see and witness it.”
Mr. Trump told Bryant the museums would be a “great legacy” for him as governor.
In his remarks, Mr. Trump drew on the achievements of civil rights veterans.
“Today we strive to be worthy of their sacrifice,” he said. “We pray for inspiration from their example. We want our country to be a place where every child from every background can grow up free from fear, innocent of hatred and surrounded by love, opportunity and hope. Today we pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past and dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice and peace.”
He called the museums “labors of love — love for Mississippi, love for your nation, love for G-d-given dignity written into every human soul.”
Mr. Trump singled out Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP leader who was shot to death outside his home in 1963. His widow, Myrlie, was in the audience for Mr. Trump’s speech and drew a standing ovation when he acknowledged her.
Mr. Trump said Medgar Evers “knew it was long past time for his nation to fulfill its founding promise to treat every citizen as an equal child of G-d.” Evers, Mr. Trump said, now rests in Arlington National Cemetery “beside men and women of all races, backgrounds and walks of life who’ve served and sacrificed for our country. Their headstones do not mark the color of their skin but immortalize the courage of their deeds.”
Myrlie Evers did not mention Mr. Trump in her remarks a short time later at the outdoor public ceremony. “Regardless of race, creed or color, we are all Americans. … If Mississippi can rise to the occasion, then the rest of the country should be able to do the same thing,” she said.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a leader of the civil rights movement, was among those who stayed away. He said Mr. Trump’s presence at the museum opening was an insult.
The White House accused Lewis and others of injecting politics into a moment it said could be used to bring people together.