U.S. President Donald Trump says he is “moved” by the opening of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi, where he praised civil rights leaders such as Medgar Evers and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Trump’s presence at the event was controversial among his critics, who say he has fueled the fires of racial tension in the United States. Civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, who was scheduled to speak at the event, announced on Thursday that he would not attend because the president will be there.
Trump kept his remarks at the event low-key, speaking to an audience that included Evers’ widow, and Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. To the creators of the museum, Trump said, “We are truly grateful … we admire you.”
Trump took special note of pastors like King, who he said “started the civil rights movement.” Of the civil rights leaders profiled in the museum and their peers, Trump said, “We strive to be worthy of their sacrifice.”
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a supporter of Trump who invited the president, welcomed the president to the podium by saying, “What a wonderful day this is for us all.” He said this week Trump’s attendance will draw global attention and provide the museums with a key boost.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum offers a stark look at the often bloody struggle for civil rights in the American South from 1945 through 1976. Exhibits include such weapons of terror and hate as a Ku Klux Klan cross and the gun used to murder Medgar Evers.
There also is a Museum of Mississippi History, which provides a 15,000-year review of the state’s history from prehistoric times to present day. The two distinct museums under a single roof both open Saturday, the day before the 200th anniversary of Mississippi becoming the 20th state.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” Lewis said in a statement. “President Trump’s disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer … Medgar Evers, Robert Clark, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and countless others who have given their all for Mississippi to be a better place.”
Lewis, who is 77 years old, worked with Martin Luther King, led the civil rights march on Selma, and spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. For the last 21 years, he has represented the state of Georgia in the House of Representatives. He was scheduled to be one of the main speakers Saturday.
The White House said it was “unfortunate” that Lewis would not be at the opening.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said the president “has always condemned racism, violence and bigotry and hatred in all forms. We stand by that.”
The president has come under criticism from some for his reluctance to condemn the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer. He also has been relentless in his criticism of the silent, bent knee protests during the national anthem staged by NFL players in their attempt to bring national focus to the police brutality directed on African American men.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of assassinated Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, was also one of the featured speakers at the opening event. Evers-Williams has said she would address Trump’s presence, although the president may be gone by the time she speaks.
Derrick Johnson, the NAACP president, told CNN that he will not attend the opening either. Johnson said Trump’s presence at the museum is “an affront to those individuals who fought for voting rights to ensure that people had quality education and access to health care …Those are principles this President does not support.”
The White House said Trump hopes others will be there to acknowledge “the movement was about removing barriers and unifying Americans of all backgrounds.”
Some African Americans, although opposed to Trump, were going to attend anyway. The Rev. C.J. Rhodes, a prominent clergyman and son of one of the state’s top voting rights lawyers, said he would be there. He said Trump sharing the day is part of Mississippi’s “complicated, complex, conflicted narrative.”