The Past Today: A Southern Physician Visits the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum

By Suzanne Minor

At this year’s Southern Group on Educational Affairs conference, the University of Mississippi hosted an outing at the Two Mississippi Museums, consisting of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

I focused my visit on the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.  It was exhausting, difficult, heart-wrenching, and, in the end, hopeful.  Growing up in rural Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, I witnessed legalized segregation through small private schools and experienced rampant racism as the norm. Thankfully, college and medical school broadened my perspective, particularly gross anatomy.  Once without skin, all of those black and white cadavers looked so similar.  Not better than or less than, but equal in skinless death.  I dove into former slave narratives, reading Frederick Douglas and trying to reconcile the message from my upbringing – that I was better than because I was white – with my new learning in gross anatomy and in my direct experience with people who looked different than me.  I was learning that we were all just human, no better and no worse than each other.  My professional career has been dedicated to attending to the medical and holistic needs of the underserved communities of Miami, Florida, a diverse area in which I’m in the minority.

The first rooms of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum contained glass pillars inscribed with the names of those murdered for the color of their skin, reminding me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s room filled with images of those murdered in the Holocaust.  Just as in 1930’s Berlin and in 1950’s and 1960’s Mississippi, in today’s world, we are seeing a surge in hate crimes and ethnic marginalization directly impacting patient safety.  We have fewer patients going to the Muslim-run free clinic in Miami. We suspect that the reason is patients’ fear of deportation.  I also see the hate extending beyond patients, with my Muslim colleagues feeling grief and betrayal that our country elected someone who hates them so much.  They feel much less secure now than just a few years ago.  We discuss hate versus love and how hate can feel powerful and easy whereas love can feel vulnerable and may take some work.

The details of the Civil Rights Era were well told, fact-laden, and directly relevant to life in today’s United States, particularly to the real work I do as a physician.  Then and now, men and women are standing up for their rights, standing up to hate with love, standing up for higher principles and values.  Oprah’s voice telling me about Emmett Till’s murder and his mother’s courage in his open casket service was an intimate, harrowing experience.  This story continues to be alive in today’s world and I wonder if we are moving forward or not.  Trayvon Martin was murdered just a few years ago.  Again, so much hate and anger and rage and, of course, beneath that is fear and ignorance.

The movie about the three missing civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) leading to an FBI investigation that eventually unearthed their bodies spoke to how racism was pervasive in the very justice systems of America, specifically the legal system of Mississippi.  The museum’s exhibits of segregated ward and hospital signs spoke to the racism in our health system.  Those signs brought to mind Miami’s history of segregation and continued disparities and challenges in health care and outcomes.  Anger, fear, and ignorance embedded in the legal and health care systems.

Vernan Dahmer, a Civil Rights worker who encouraged blacks to vote, sustained mortal burns while defending his home against arsonists so that his wife and daughter could escape through the back door.  There is a huge image on the wall of his four sons in full military dress, home from the Vietnam war, standing over the charred ruins of their home, their father murdered while they were away defending their country, our country.

I skipped the movie about Medgar Evers’ murder; I was done, and I recognize my privilege in getting to decide that I was done.  Many people in this country don’t get to make the decision to be done, as they live within racism every day.  I move between being overwhelmed with the racism we live with in this country to passionately wanting to scream from the rooftops and enact change.

I had been concerned about my first visit to the former capital of the Nazi regime, yet I loved visiting Berlin.  They don’t hide that horrible things happened there.  In fact, they said it all over the city (at least as of 4 years ago): horrible things happened here and this was how those horrible things happened and this is what we are doing to prevent those horrible things from happening again.  The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum unflinchingly dissects Mississippi’s horrible past regarding racism.  This gives me so much hope as a physician and as a person.  Meeting hate and ignorance with awareness and love is a powerful strategy.  I hope that we, as a nation, and we, as physicians, can follow the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum example and really look at issues openly, have a conversation, and work towards equality.

Suzanne Minor, MD, FAAP, is the Director of Clinical Faculty Development and an Associate Professor at the Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.

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