The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 2017, focuses on the years between 1945 and 1976 “when Mississippi was ground zero for the national Civil Rights Movement”. The museum celebrates the Mississippians who fought to move their state forward and remains unflinching while handling the violence inflicted upon those activists. Artifacts on exhibit include a tear gas canister from the integration of the University of Mississippi, shards of glass from a bombed church and the rifle used to assassinate Medgar Evers.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is one of thirteen locations managed by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Since its establishment in 1902, the department has largely been free from government interference and is instead managed by a director and a nine-member board of trustees.
Under the current arrangement, a prospective trustee must first be nominated by the board itself and then be confirmed by the state Senate. However, that might be changing soon. If enacted, Senate Bill 2727 would allow the governor and lieutenant governor to take turns nominating new trustees for Senate confirmation to six-year terms. Senator Mike Thompson, who wrote the bill, says that the proposal is simply meant to hold the board accountable.
To be clear, the Department of Archives and History is already held accountable in the ways that matter. Any nominee to the board must be confirmed by the Senate. Its funding is controlled by the legislature. Its actions are constrained by the law. The Department of Archives and History is not exactly a rogue agency. The goal of the bill is not to make the department accountable to Mississippians, but to wrest control of the department and its work from historians and hand it to politicians.
The struggle at hand is not over some dimly lit repository of dusty files. The Department of Archives and History played a significant role in such recent controversies as the redesign of the state flag and the relocation of Confederate statues. Mississippi, slowly but surely, is working its way out of a politicized understanding of history and into a historicized understanding of politics.
And so, public concern over Bill 2727, such as the open letter published by the Society of Mississippi Archivists, is well-warranted. If the bill were passed today, the next nomination to the board might be made by Governor Tate Reeves, a man who recently requested millions of dollars to start a “Patriotic Education Fund” that would limit programs teaching the history and legacy of slavery.
A Mississippian, like any American, should have certain rights: to pray, to speak, to protest, to vote. But each of these explicit rights rests on an implicit right to know. A citizen cannot pray or speak or protest or vote in her own interest if she cannot first determine what her interests are. A person cannot say how the world should be without first saying how the world is. Bill 2727 is a threat to this most fundamental right. A good politician will tell you what you want to hear, but a good historian will tell you what you need to hear.
There are nine people on the Department of Education board; five of them are nominated by the governor. There are twelve people on the Institutions of Higher Learning board; all twelve of them are nominated by the governor. If Bill 2727 is passed, one person will be at the top of a system that disseminates truth — tenuring each professor, approving each textbook, exhibiting each artifact — to be enjoyed or endured by three million Mississippians. And all we will be able to do is hope that we picked the right person for the job.
John Hydrisko is a senior English, philosophy and history major from Philadelphia, Penn.