U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday that he was "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 spoke ahead of the official opening ceremony on the grounds of the museum. Meanwhile, protesters gathered at the site to protest Trump's presence with signs saying things like "Love Trumps Hate."
Trump kept his remarks at the event low key, speaking to an audience that included Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of assassinated Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers, and Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant. To the creators of the museum, Trump said, "We are truly grateful ... we admire you."
Of the civil rights leaders profiled in the museum and their peers, Trump said, "We strive to be worthy of their sacrifice."
Lewis skips event
Trump's critics say he has fueled the fires of racial tension in the United States. U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon who was scheduled to speak at the museum's opening, announced Thursday that he would not attend because the president would be there.
Meanwhile, at an African-American history museum elsewhere in Jackson, NAACP President Derrick Johnson held a separate news conference attended by Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Johnson said the separate event was meant to "pay homage to those who have dedicated their lives to the civil rights of Mississippians, without the presence of President Donald Trump."
Lumumba added, "It is my appreciation of martyrs both known and unknown that will not allow me to share the stage with a president who does not have a continuing commitment to civil rights. ... Mr. President, we don't want you to tell us what civil rights means in Mississippi."
Controversy over the president's presence at the civil rights museum was forgotten when the opening ceremony started. Evers-Williams, who helped establish the museum by donating Medgar Evers' papers and artifacts to it, said she initially was suspicious when she heard the civil rights museum was to be paired with a more general Mississippi history museum.
"I immediately thought, 'Are we going back to our old practices?' " Evers-Williams said. " 'Are we going to have two separate but equal museums?' " She said she had come to believe the two museums were essential to each other, each telling a different part Mississippi's story.
She invited visitors to the museum to experience it as she had. "Going through the museum of my history," she said, "I wept because I felt the blows, I felt the bullet, I felt the tears, I felt the cries — but I also sensed the hope that dwelled in the hearts of all those people."
She finished her speech by saying, "Stand tall — be a Mississippian. Stand tall — be an American. Stand tall in the belief that we have justice and equality, regardless of race, creed or color."
As she returned to her seat, Bryant was heard on a microphone joking to his neighbor, "Man, I'm glad I didn't have to follow her."
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 opened Saturday, the day before the 200th anniversary of Mississippi's 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, 77, worked with 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 Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had been scheduled to be one of the main speakers at the museum Saturday.
The White House said it was "unfortunate" that Lewis would not be at the museum opening.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said the president "has always condemned racism, violence, 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, kneeling 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.