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A bullet hole scarred the truck that the Dahmer family used to escape a 1966 firebombing.

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Cindy Gardner, director of collections for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, showed the rifle used in the 1963 death of civil rights worker Medgar Evers, in Jackson, Miss.

Photos by James Patterson • New York Times,

Plan for civil rights museum revives old racial tensions

  • Article by: Campbell Robertson
  • New York Times
  • April 5, 2014 - 4:48 PM

– In the woods off Monroe Road, a truck is so rusted that it is melting. It was Vernon Dahmer’s truck, the one that he drove to his death, the circumstances of which can be inferred from the three penny-size holes in it.

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.

So it was with some faith that the Dahmers agreed to hand over parts of the truck to be exhibited in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. “If we can’t tell it like it really is,” said Dahmer’s son Vernon Jr., “we best not tell it at all.”

The 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,” said Reuben Anderson, the first black judge on the State Supreme Court.

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. “I know that. But because of the way people have been treated in this state, there will always be suspicion.”

The museum is scheduled to open in 2017 next to a new general history museum.

The task of filling the civil rights museum has fallen to people like Cindy Gardner, the director of collections at the Department of Archives and History. Since 2012, she has been looking for historical items from those who lived through the movement years.

Hank Holmes, the director of the department, insists the story the museum tells will “not be sugarcoated at all.”

Asked if he would cooperate with the museum, James Meredith — whose enrollment in 1962 as the first black at the University of Mississippi led to riots — did not answer directly. “Sixty-four years ago I came to Mississippi to launch a war, a war against white supremacy,” he said. “And they’re still winning that war, and I’m still in that war.”

© 2014 Star Tribune