To most people, the word “museum” suggests a structure dedicated to the artifacts of history. An “awards ceremony” is generally considered a celebration of past achievements.
But the National Civil Rights Museum’s 31st gala on Thursday night at the Orpheum was – in the words of one presenter – as much a “call to arms” and reckoning with the present danger as it was a tribute to the careers of its honorees. .
“A century ago, the euphemistic phrase ‘civil rights’ was adopted for security in an era of lynching and overt white supremacy,” Taylor Branch, 75, a Freedom Award recipient and historian, said in a speech. passion that earned him a standing ovation. “Today, a senseless backlash threatens to undermine civil rights as a whole. That means, literally, citizenship rights for everyone…
“How many people captivated by the ongoing backlash could abandon democracy for whiteness altogether?” He asked. “That is the challenge of our time. Our free government rests precariously on the vote, which is nonviolence applied to politics…Votes don’t matter to Putin, or to the troops of assault attacking the US Capitol.”
Relatively formal in dress but fiery in attitude, Thursday’s two-hour Orpheum show – produced by Faith Morris, the museum’s director of marketing and external affairs – was the Freedom Award’s first public gala since the COVID-19 pandemic. of 2020. This year’s event has been canceledwhile the 2021 awards were presented in a “virtual” show broadcast live at the Orpheum which was not open to the public.
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Attracting a crowd of nearly 1,500, the awards ceremony was preceded by a two-hour block party on the “red carpet” on Main Street in Beale, outside the Orpheum, where guests were served fried chicken with Hoppin’ John and blackened catfish and andouille sausage “martinis” (food was in a martini glass).
This year’s Freedom Award program had a somewhat intellectual orientation. Past Freedom Award ceremonies have sometimes featured celebrities, including civil rights champions so famous — as in the cases of Bono, Oprah and Usher — that they don’t even need last names.
But the 2022 awards emphasized scholarship. The winners included two Pulitzer Prize-winning chroniclers of 20th-century Black experience and race relations in the United States: Branch, author of the historical trilogy “America in the Age of the King,” a history of the civil rights era centered on the careers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Isabel Wilkerson, 60, author of the best-selling book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the so-called “Great Migration” of black citizens out from South.
Wilkerson – whose most recent book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” compares racism in the United States to explicitly hierarchical caste systems in other countries – compared America, which was founded on principles from white supremacy, to a house with structural flaws, a leaky basement, and other fundamental issues. She said people who complain about not being responsible for slavery or other injustices that happened before they were born are missing the point. “We are the current occupants of a property with stress cracks,” she said. “It’s up to us to deal with it now.”
The third recipient of the Freedom Award was Fred Smith, Founder and Executive Chairman of FedEx, 78, a longtime supporter of the National Civil Rights Museum and similar institutions. According to the museum’s announcement of this year’s awards, Smith, per FedEx, launched support programs for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and “influenced millions of contributions to advancing inclusion, empowering economic opportunity, and encouraging learning and leadership for nonprofit organizations. lucrative”.
Citing his company’s core commitment to diversity, Smith said he believes businesses “have a role to play in building a more just society.”
“I believe that business success and social progress should and can go hand in hand,” he said.
He added that he and his film producing daughters, Molly Smith and Rachel Smith, applied a similar philosophy to films made by their companies, Alcon Entertainment and Black Label Media. “Seeing inclusion on screen is crucial because society isn’t monolithic,” he said, citing the Smith family’s two major upcoming releases, both based on true stories: ” Devotion,” which stars Jonathan Majors as the Navy’s first African-American pilot and director. “Dance with Somebody” by Kasi Lemmons, a biopic starring Naomi Ackie as singer Whitney Houston.
Memphis-born attorney Jeffery Robinson, 66, a longtime ACLU executive whose activism inspired the 2022 documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”, currently on Netflix.
Structured around Robinson’s speaking tour, the documentary complements the work of Branch and Wilkerson, as Robinson presents a factual assessment of racial inequality and provides the kind of context and story often missing from school lessons. Robinson was not present to accept his award but expressed his thanks via a videotaped message that continued previous speakers’ message about reckoning honestly with an uncomfortable story.
As Branch said in his acceptance speech, “The dire need of our time is not for racial healing. It may sound nice, but to heal is to restore a previous state of wholeness, which has never existed in the United States. Race relations under slavery were defined by violence in law, and the legacy of slave violence still weighs heavily on where we live, who we love and even know, and who is safe.”
Museum officials acknowledged that this year’s Freedom Award selections were intended, in part, to offer a rebuke to recent legislative efforts in Tennessee and elsewhere that make it illegal to teach students lessons about race that would cause ” discomfort” or “guilt” because of “the individual’s race or gender” (to quote words and phrases in a Tennessee bill passed in 2021).
Additionally, Branch’s selection — whose Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. trilogy is nearly 3,000 pages — is a reminder that the National Civil Rights Museum was built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed in 1968. .
The museum opened in 1991 to celebrate King’s legacy and continue his work — “to educate and serve as a catalyst to inspire action to create positive social change,” according to its mission statement. Billed by the museum as “one of the most prestigious events in the country”, the Freedom Award ceremony was launched in 1995. Typically, three recipients are named each year.
According to the museum websitethe award “honors individuals who have made significant contributions to civil rights and who have laid the foundations for current and future leaders in the struggle for human rights”.
Towards the end of the evening, the host of the event, actor Lamman Rucker, said the Freedom Award ceremony had been “amazing, uplifting, inspiring, informative and a call to arms”.
Showing his shining eyes, he said, “These are not repeated tears.”
Actors, authors, athletes, musicians, clergy, capitalists, diplomats, dissidents, politicians, presidents, prime ministers and Nobel Peace Prize laureates are among the nearly 100 Freedom Prize laureates to date. The roll call includes Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Sidney Poitier, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, among others.
In 2018, future President Joe Biden was a recipientwhile Michelle Obama was among last year’s winners.
The main sponsors of this year’s Freedom Awards were International Paper, FedEx, Nike, the Hyde Family Foundation and the Ford Motor Company.