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Reaction To Trump's Appearance At Mississippi Civil Rights Museum


Now to Jackson, Miss., where President Trump visited today for the opening of two new museums marking the state's bicentennial and the state's role as ground zero in the civil rights movement. His appearance drew controversy. The NAACP and some African-American leaders, including the civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis, boycotted the event. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in Jackson for the occasion today, and she's with us now. Debbie, thanks so much for joining us.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And I understand I hear a little band in the background. You know, I understand the president's remarks were delivered separate from the public ceremony. Can you tell us about that? And if you would, please, tell us what he said.

ELLIOTT: Right. So the public ceremony was outside after the president had already left town. And that's what you're hearing the remnants of now. There are still bands playing outside on the stage. But the president spoke to a private group inside the museums in the shared auditorium that they have - the history museum and the Civil Rights Museum.

It was a group of politicians, elected officials and some key figures from the civil rights movement. He had just had a brief tour of the museum, which he called a labor of love, quote, "for the God-given dignity written into every human soul." And he indicated that it should serve as an inspiration. Listen to what he said.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Today we pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past and dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice and peace.

ELLIOTT: Now, the president stayed pretty close to his script. He only veered off once or twice to talk about how much he loves Mississippi. He shouted out the brother and the widow of Medgar Evers, the slain NAACP leader from Mississippi. And he talked about how Mississippi is a state where he's had great success. Now, that's what some key figures had feared, that somehow the president might say something that distract - detracted from the serious of this moment. And that didn't happen.

MARTIN: Well, Debbie, you know, this is the only state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country. And I think a lot of people view this museum opening as a very significant event for that reason. I mean, this is a state that violently resisted, you know, human and civil rights for African-Americans and, for many people, seemed very slow to acknowledge the brutality of that history. So some veterans of that struggle did choose to attend. And I was wondering what they said about the occasion.

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, certainly, the most stirring comments came from Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar's widow. She described what it was like as she went through the museum reliving all the things that had happened, not only to her family, but to a lot of her contemporaries. Listen.


MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS: I wept because I felt the blows. I felt the bullets. I felt the tears. I felt the cries. But I also sensed the hope.

ELLIOTT: Now, there were tears in the audience as she talked about that. She also noted that the country today is suffering from some of the same ills as when her husband was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963. And she said, you know, if Mississippi can rise, so can the rest of the country.

MARTIN: Debbie, we mentioned earlier that Congressman John Lewis boycotted the event after Governor Phil Bryant, who's a Republican, invited the president. Did Congressman Lewis say why and did other people choose not to come?

ELLIOTT: Well, he said it was an insult. And, yes, other people decided not to come, including Mississippi's only black (inaudible), Bennie Thompson. He issued a joint statement with Congressman Lewis. Lewis actually had been jailed in Jackson (inaudible) and was supposed to share the stage with Myrlie Evers-Williams and make some comments, and he wasn't here. The NAACP and the Jackson mayor had a counter event as the president was coming into town this morning. The current president of the NAACP is from Mississippi. So some significant people were not here, also just ordinary people. I spoke with one gentleman who had come here from Mound Bayou, which is up in the Mississippi Delta. That is a historic town that was founded by freed slaves. Herman Johnson was really looking forward to seeing the museum. But he said he was not at all pleased to know that the president had come to Mississippi for this occasion.

MARTIN: Debbie, we only have a couple of seconds left. I was just wondering if - this is all taking place in the context of this important Senate race in Alabama. And I just wondered if the president's visit is being seen in somehow in context with that?

ELLIOTT: Not really. He didn't say anything about that here today, even though this is pretty close to that state. He did, however, last night, in an appearance in Pensacola, Fla., shout out Roy Moore, the Republican candidate who, of course, is embattled with accusations of sexual assault from decades ago. And he talked about, you know, people needing to get out and vote for Roy Moore. That was almost like being in Alabama. Pensacola is in Mobile Alabama television market. So he was able to campaign without actually setting foot in Alabama.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Jackson, Miss. Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAVIS STAPLES' "EYES ON THE PRIZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.