It’s snowing in Mississippi today. Tomorrow a sitting president will visit the state. These rare events seem portentous in their confluence, or maybe I’m too willing to assign meaning where none exists.
The president’s decision to attend the opening of the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, is causing consternation and division among the organizers. Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights hero slated to give the keynote at the event, says he will not attend now. Ditto for Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi’s only black member of Congress. It’s easy to understand why these men might boycott the event. After all, the president used a ceremony honoring Navajo code talkers to make a racist crack about Pocahontas. He declared there were “good people on both sides” when self-proclaimed neo-nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia. He spent years questioning the citizenship of our first black president. What will he say as he stands among artifacts like the rifle used to kill Medgar Evers? What will he say when faced with a monolith engraved with the names of known lynching victims? Will he express an opinion about the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education? Will he express remorse that so much of his family’s wealth was built upon discriminatory housing practices that denied homes to black people?
The problem with this president isn’t that he is unpredictable. In fact, he is wholly predictable. Anytime he speaks without the aid of a teleprompter, he says something either ridiculous or offensive. What will he say tomorrow as he stands in a place meant to honor activism and the fight for social justice? Will he bring up the black football players who kneel during the national anthem? Will he joke about the Black Lives Matter movement? Will he crack wise about Obama’s birth certificate?
It would be nice if more presidents made a point of visiting Mississippi. Many people there feel ignored and forgotten by the federal government. They aren’t wrong to feel that way. But this president at this event seems a terrible choice. His presence is driving away black luminaries and the risk is real that the event will now be a sea of white faces and white talking points and white self-congratulation. That’s tragic. And if it happens, the fault will lie squarely with Mississippi’s unabashedly racist governor Phil Bryant. This is a man who has fought to keep the symbol of the Confederacy flying high at the State Capitol. This is a man who has designated April as Confederate Heritage Month in the state. And this is the man who invited a divisive president to the opening of the Civil Rights Museum with no consideration of how it might be perceived by Civil Rights leaders like Lewis. Or maybe it wasn’t an inconsiderate action; maybe Gov. Bryant is beyond redemption.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. The president is not scheduled to make public remarks, so maybe his presence will prove uneventful. I hope so. I hope he chooses to listen rather than speak. I hope he understands that this is not a time for jokes or the airing of grudges. I hope he learns something about the power of protest. I hope he is humbled at the stories of violent and valiant moments in the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights. I hope he comes to understand that his rallying cry about making our country great again sounds like a threat to people who remember what the country was like back in the “good old days.” I hope he understands that this event is not about him. I hope he keeps his mouth shut and his mind open.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’ll be a cold day in hell when this president chooses to listen instead of talk. But today it is snowing in Mississippi. Anything is possible.
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