Civil Conversations: Day 7, A momentous museum mission

The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum simultaneously held a U.S. Senator, a freedom rider and the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage

More stories from Sam Johnson

UW-Eau Claire students, school trips and various museum goers look on as Watkins shares his story.

Sam Johnson

UW-Eau Claire students, school trips and various museum goers look on as Watkins shares his story.

After almost two days of reprieve from cloth bus seats, rural highways and touching thighs with their “bus besties,” the spring 2022 Civil Rights Pilgrimage was back on the road, leaving New Orleans, La. en route to Jackson, Miss.

The first stop was the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. There was a bit of commotion at the museum, as Roger Wicker, U.S. senator, was holding a press conference shortly after the group’s arrival.

Before Wicker’s arrived, the group was ushered into the museum. Numerous exhibits surrounded the group, with a shimmering light display snaking across the roof and into an open central area.

A white museum employee from Pennsylvania — who used “y’all” at least eight times during his speech — gave a lengthy introduction to the museum before setting the group loose.

Information filled the museum to the brim. Toby Mohr, a first-year journalism student, said the museum’s content was very broad.

“There was a lot of information,” Mohr said. “It covered civil rights throughout all of American history.”

The museum had eight sections, each highlighting a different historical area or struggle Black people survived. It began with the “Mississippi Freedom Struggle,” and ended with “Where do we go from here?” 

Most of it was Mississippi-centric, but there were a couple of exceptions, such as an exhibit on Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led a slave rebellion resulting in the foundation of Haiti.

Shortly after the UW-Eau Claire group entered, Wicker, surrounded by security, a photographer and several other people in suits, walked briskly through the museum.

The trip through the museum took an interesting turn when Hezekiah Watkins, one of the freedom riders, arrived to give a speech to several school groups in the third section “This little light of mine.”

Some UW-Eau Claire students and various museum-goers listened as he identified himself as “one of the original freedom riders,” a claim that PBS disputed.

Despite this allegedly false claim, Watkins’s story is one involving being arrested, a trip to death row and the title of “youngest freedom rider,” according to WAPT.

His speech gave personal accounts from first hearing of the freedom riders to his controversial arrest and his activism after.

After Watkins’s speech, the group had lunch outside, and loaded the bus for Medgar Evers’s house, to see where the Mississippi civil rights leader was assassinated.

Johnson can be reached at [email protected].