Mississippi lawmakers approve new civil rights museum

BILOXI, Miss Tue Apr 5, 2011 12:17pm EDT

BILOXI, Miss (Reuters Life!) - Lawmakers in the state of Mississippi have voted to build a civil rights museum, a project pushed by the governor amid criticism that he was doing so to help a possible presidential campaign.

Governor Haley Barbour, who is considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and has been accused of racial insensitivity, had threatened to call a special session to get legislators to consider the issue.

Detractors remained skeptical of the governor's motives.

"This is just an attention-grabber to launch his presidential race," Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said. "It was not a priority for the administration before the series of race-related controversies."

But a governor's spokeswoman said Barbour brought the project up in January -- before the media firestorm over some of comments about race. Barbour was criticized after he said that he didn't remember the 1960s civil rights struggle in his hometown of Yazoo City as being "that bad."

"The project stalled because there was a disagreement over the location," said spokeswoman Laura Hipp.

The state House of Representatives approved $20 million in funding for the civil rights museum on Monday, as well as $18 million to build a state history museum.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the museums on Monday night.

The museums would be adjacent to each other, a few blocks from the Capitol in Jackson. Lawmakers said both museums would be good for the state, where African-Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the population.

Barbour said he wanted the state to fully fund construction of the museums, then seek private money to help fill them with artifacts.

Mississippi already has museums to honor the blues and the Muppets, launched with a combination of private and public funds.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)