Nearly two weeks prior to Vice President Mike Pence touching down in Memphis, officials at the National Civil Rights Museum received word that he wanted to visit during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend celebration.
“Secret Service initially contacted us about a week and a half prior to the vice-president actually coming,” said Faith Morris, the museum’s chief marketing. “I asked his team directly, and then I asked him, ‘Why do you want to visit the civil rights museum?’”
Pence’s answer struck Morris and other museum principals as the “right reason” for coming. His presence set off a hot debate.
“He said to me, ‘Growing up, I had two heroes: John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I grew up studying his teachings, and I wanted to be in a place where Dr. King was during the observance of his life and work.’ At that point, we believed that Vice-President Pence was coming to the museum for the right reasons,” Morris said.
“But before moving ahead with preparations by the Secret Service advance team, I made it clear that there would be no campaigning activity in this very high-stakes election year.”
Many labeled the visit a calculated move to “garner favor with black voters because Trump’s administration is overwhelmingly opposed by African Americans.”
“Trump is no fool, he just acts like it,” said former Shelby County Director of Veteran Services Joseph Kyles. “Pence’s visit was not out of some deeply held respect for Dr. King. It was a calculated move to sway us and try to make us believe that this administration really cares about black folk. And we know from Trump’s remarks and actions relating to people of color that it’s just not the truth.”
Noelle Trent, the museum’s director of Interpretation, Collections and Education, guided Pence’s tour of the museum. Reflecting, Morris said she believes his motivation for visiting the museum was genuinely supported by his demeanor during the tour.
“Pence was a gentleman, and he was very respectful. He asked questions about the civil rights movement and elements of the movement,” Morris said. “He arrived late, but he didn’t rush through the exhibits to make up the time. Pence listened, he lingered, and seemed to be authentically vested in exposing himself to the civil rights struggle and the contributions Dr. King made to that struggle before he was killed.”
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Vice-President Pence’s visit to Memphis, said the Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church.
“I just make one observation that I think is very interesting. During those eight years that President Obama was in office, I think it’s very interesting that he never came to Memphis during Dr. King’s holiday,” Whalum said.
“Vice-President Joe Biden never visited the city on the King holiday. And yet, Pence chose to come during the weekend that we celebrate Dr. King’s life.”
Morris said the museum did receive some push-back from people thinking that it had been used as a “backdrop for the Trump administration to curry favor with black people.”
“But I genuinely felt that Mike Pence gained some real understanding, that he wanted to really explore the message of the civil rights movement. Folks have expressed some strong opinions to the contrary,” she said.
“We are here to educate and to expose those who did not know and to raise the sensibility of people who were not aware of our struggle and our history. One thing we now know: Mike Pence was here, and he now knows that truth. He has been exposed to our message. This is living history, not just about some things that happened long ago.”
The things that people witness at the museum are things that are still happening, Morris emphasized.
“Now, maybe Pence can understand our deep offense at the rhetoric on race and race relations that continues to come out of this present administration. He asked the right questions, and he seemed genuinely moved by what he learned.”
Still, Morris acknowledged that, “We may have some very strong sentiment regarding the motivation and timing of Pence’s visit.
“Anyone having power over people, ruling in offices of government that affect African-Americans and other people of color, I believe they should educate themselves about things they may be culturally ignorant of,” she said.
“That is why we are here. I hope everyone takes a lesson from Mike Pence. Take the time to see another perspective. At the end of the day, we did our job.”
After saying farewell, Pence spoke in Raleigh at the Holy City Church of God in Christ.
Acknowledging the nation’s deep rift, Pence said that if Americans rededicate themselves to the ideals that King advanced while striving to open opportunities for everyone, “We’ll see our way through these divided times and we’ll do our part in our time to form a more perfect union.”