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A SYMBOL OF HOPE?

The promise of a new state-run civil rights museum in Mississippi is that the state has changed and is reckoning with its ugliest history.

New York Times

HATTIESBURG, Miss.

In the woods off Monroe Road, a truck is so rusted that it is melting into the earth. It was Vernon Dahmer's truck, the one that he drove and that his family continued to use after his death, the circumstances of which can be inferred from the three penny-size holes in the back panel.

Five men were convicted in the 1966 firebombing and ambush that killed Dahmer, the local NAACP president. But his family is certain about one culprit that went unpunished: the state of Mississippi.

"They're just as much to blame as the Klansmen," said Ellie Dahmer, 88, who fled with three children to the barn that night as Vernon Dahmer, her husband, traded fire with the attackers.

So it was with some faith that the Dahmers agreed to hand over parts of the truck to the state, to be exhibited in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Not complete faith, the family clarifies. This is only a loan. And the family has control over its use.

"If we can't tell it like it really is," said Dahmer's son Vernon Jr., "we best not tell it at all."

Though several civil rights museums have cropped up, the Mississippi museum will be the first state-operated one in the country. That is its promise: a symbol that Mississippi has changed and is reckoning with the ugliest parts of its history.

"It has been a first-class effort, and you don't see a lot of that in Mississippi," said Reuben Anderson, the first black judge on the state Supreme Court and a trustee of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

But that is also what makes it suspect. For those who were beaten at the hands of state officials, whose oppression was state policy, handing personal relics to the state of Mississippi to become a part of its official history is a loaded decision.

"I know it would be a benefit to the state of Mississippi to have these things," said Tazwell Bowsky, a black county supervisor in McComb, a town referred to in the early 1960s as the bombing capital of the world. "I know that. But because of the way people have been treated in this state, there will always be suspicion."

The idea of a privately financed civil rights museum here goes back years. But in 2011, Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said a civil rights museum should be built in downtown Jackson, the capital. It is scheduled to open in 2017.

The task of filling the museum has fallen to people like Cindy Gardner, the director of collections at the Department of Archives and History. Since 2012, she and her colleagues have been traveling around the state, spreading the word that they are looking for historical items from those who lived through the movement years, or from their children. They insist that the museum will, in the words of Hank T. Holmes, the director of the department, "not be sugarcoated at all."

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