President Trump visited Jackson, Miss., on Saturday, where he toured and delivered remarks at the opening of a pair of museums dedicated to the state's role in the civil rights movement and as a celebration of its bicentennial.
While he largely did not stray from his prepared remarks, Trump's presence at the event drew a sharp rebuke from some prominent African-American elected officials and civil rights leaders, prompting some of them to skip the opening altogether.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; and Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, all publicly declared in recent days that they were not going to the opening ceremony for Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, citing what they said was Trump's tendency to stir racial divisions and his questionable record on civil rights issues of importance to ethnic and racial minorities.
In his remarks Saturday, Trump did not wade into the controversy surrounding his presence. Instead, he praised those who helped build the conjoined facilities that state officials worked to open for more than a decade.
"These museums are labors of love, love for Mississippi, love for your nation, love for God-given dignity written into every human soul," the president said. "These buildings embody the hope that has lived in the hearts of every American for generations, the hope in a future that is more just and more free."
Trump, at the invitation of Mississippi's Republican Gov. Phil Bryant earlier this week, was slated to participate in the public ceremony marking the museum's opening. But that plan was scuttled after some prominent figures said they would not attend because Trump would be there. The president ended up delivering his remarks to a smaller crowd at a private event inside an auditorium just before the larger public ceremony held outside in the brisk December weather.
Trump also said Saturday that the museum records the "oppression, cruelty and injustice inflicted on the African-American community," and he highlighted the work done by civil rights leaders like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, a Mississippi native and NAACP activist in the state who was killed by a white supremacist in 1963 outside his home late one night in Jackson.
"Here we memorialize the brave men and women who struggled to sacrifice and sacrifice so much so that others can live in freedom," the president said.
Following the event, Trump tweeted that it was an "honor" to celebrate the museum's opening.
"It was my great honor to celebrate the opening of two extraordinary museums-the Mississippi State History Museum & the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. We pay solemn tribute to our heroes of the past & dedicate ourselves to building a future of freedom, equality, justice & peace."
On Friday, Lewis — a civil rights icon in his own right who marched alongside King in the height of the civil rights movement and had his skull fractured during a protest that turned gruesome in Alabama in 1965 known as "Bloody Sunday" — said Trump's attendance at the museum was "an insult."
"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. "The struggles represented in this museum exemplify the truth of what really happened in Mississippi."
The statement issued with Thompson, an African-American who is Mississippi's only Democratic member of Congress, offered a list of minority groups the president has maligned as further reason why the two lawmakers had decided not to attend Saturday's event alongside Trump: "President Trump's disparaging comments about women, the disabled, immigrants, and National Football League players disrespect the efforts of Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, 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."
Both Reps. Lewis and Thompson were among the Democratic members of Congress who did not attend Trump's inauguration earlier this year.
In an interview with CNN on Friday, Jackson's Democratic mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, echoed the sentiments expressed by Lewis and Thompson, adding that Trump coming to the opening of the civil rights museum was "ill-considered."
"I think we are aware obviously of the great sacrifices and struggles that took place to bring us to this point," Lumumba said. "And President Trump and the policies he espouses are disrespectful to the legacy and the history that is to be portrayed in this museum."
But, Bryant, the Mississippi governor, disagreed.
Earlier this week as the controversy was beginning to simmer, he tweeted that residents should be "proud" the president wanted to be at the museum's opening and urged residents of the state to unify.
"Mississippi should be proud that @POTUS has agreed to speak at the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The world will be watching our Bicentennial celebration. Let us come together as one Mississippi."
White House spokesperson Raj Shah told reporters Friday aboard Air Force One, as the president was headed to Florida for a campaign rally, that Trump never considered not going to the museum's opening even after Lewis, Thompson and others announced they would not attend.
"We think it's a little unfortunate that [at] a moment like this, that could be used for unification and for bringing people together, some folks are choosing to play politics with it, "he said. "But that's not going to deter us from honoring heroes in the civil rights movement."
Shah added: "The civil rights movement is an amazing movement about fighting intolerance, hatred and bigotry. He's going to honor the leaders of that movement."