Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Beverly Robertson and I sat talking in a small meeting room in the bowels of the National Civil Rights Museum on a sunny day last week.
Outside, the museum's lobby and gift shop were packed with visitors. In the courtyard, several people were taking photos of the museum's exterior and of friends and family members.
Robertson, the museum's president, placidly talked about issues that caused an uproar in some circles of the community more than a year ago.
Those issues revolved around the museum's ownership, the makeup of its board of directors and the museum's mission.
Three days earlier, in a law office in a retail/office building on Poplar Avenue across from East High School, I talked with about a dozen members of the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Oversight Committee about the same issues. The committee is a grass-roots organization, whose mission includes making sure the museum remains a positive force to keep the spirit and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive.
Neither Robertson nor the oversight committee is singing "Kumbaya" about what's best for the museum.
Forty-one years after April 4, 1968, the day an assassin's bullet killed King as the world-renowned civil rights leader and peace advocate stood on a second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel, there is little harmony about the museum's role in the community and the nation.
It seems the only thing the museum's critics and supporters agree on is that the institution is sacred, hallowed ground.
Long-simmering resentment about control of the museum burst into the public arena in the summer of 2007 during discussions about whether the Memphis landmark should remain under state ownership or be transferred to the nonprofit Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, whose board of directors manages the museum.
The state had leased the building to the foundation since 1987. The museum, which opened in 1991, is attached to the old Lorraine Motel.
The foundation's board wanted to buy the museum in hopes of giving it greater flexibility to raise money for operations and capital improvements.
But board members eventually backed away from the purchase after realizing that it was more prudent to continue state ownership because the cost of maintaining the old motel could be enormous.
The proposed purchase by the foundation, however, lit a fuse that exploded into a public protest led by the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Oversight Committee, which was supported, to an extent, by some members of Tennessee's legislative Black Caucus.
The oversight committee's members accused the museum's board of:
Being poor stewards of the museum.
Lacking transparency in the museum's operation and governance.
Refusing to "democratize" the board's membership.
Refusing to expand the museum's role and mission from historical and educational to that of a modern crusader in the civil rights movement.
"I wanted to ensure that the citizens had some input into what many of us considered sacred, hallowed ground," said state Rep. Joe Towns, a Memphis Democrat.
Towns and state Rep. Barbara Cooper, also a Memphis Democrat, conducted a public hearing in response to criticism about the museum's perceived lack of openness and the proposed purchase.
"Dr. King was killed in Memphis. He was here working for the poor. I thought it was egregious that the citizens were being ignored by the board," Towns said.
Cooper also felt the community should be heard about the potential sale and a lack of community involvement in the museum. "The board appeared too close-knit. They were a closed group," she said.
As the lease controversy boiled, civil rights veterans such as William Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, urged the state legislature's Black Caucus to use the issue to require more legislative and public oversight for the museum.
Contacted at his Washington office last week, Lucy said he has not followed the museum as closely lately, but "what I thought (in 2007) is that they didn't seem to have a clear mission."
"Personally, I thought they should have been telling more of a story about the plight of workers ... telling more of a story about the unionization of workers," which is what brought King to Memphis.
J.R. "Pitt" Hyde, chairman of the museum board's executive committee and the founder of AutoZone, also remains a lightning rod for critics of the Civil Rights Museum.
He is viewed in some quarters as using his wealth to maintain dictatorial control over the museum's operation.
But Robertson and other board members scoff at the assertion.
Given the strong personalities of board members, such as chairman Dr. Benjamin Hooks, former Memphis NAACP executive director Maxine Smith and veteran civil rights activist Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles, it's hard to imagine anyone running over them.
At the end of it all, the state on Dec. 4, 2007, approved a new 15-year lease with the foundation, along with a memorandum of understanding to address community concerns about the museum's operations and the composition of the board.
Two key provisions of the deals included the state's agreement to take care of major maintenance issues, and the addition of eight new members to the foundation's board.
Members of the grass-roots oversight committee, which recently incorporated as a nonprofit entity, still are not satisfied.
"I think we have a lot to be proud of," committee president Delia Smith said at the meeting in lawyer Laurice E. Smith's office. "Our main goal was to keep it (the museum) from being sold."
Laurice Smith was the committee's first president.
Another accomplishment the group cited was a requirement by the state to have scheduled reports and audits regarding museum operations and finances. That was not the case previously, they said.
And Cooper, who attended the meeting, stressed that the issue is not about personalities.
Delia Smith said the oversight committee has been happy with its working relationship with the museum's board, but wishes there could be even more community involvement.
For instance, committee members expressed disappointment that none of their members were included on a museum committee charged with choosing a firm to lead a major renovation of the museum.
Oversight committee member John Gibson expressed another concern when he said the museum's board needs more members who are grounded in the civil rights movement.
When the eight new members were added, the committee submitted a list of civil rights notables as nominees, but none was selected.
And the committee wants term limits so that longtime members such as Hooks and Hyde would rotate completely off the board.
They think the board's membership is too weighted with corporate leadership, which gives the impression that the museum is a grand tourist site when it should be a place where open discussion about important social and civil rights issues percolates.
State architect Mike Fitts, who represented the state Building Commission in the lease negotiations, said things are going well. Despite tough times, he said, Gov. Phil Bredesen put $300,000 in the state budget to address the museum's maintenance needs.
Major repairs have been made and "we're chipping away at other problems" that come up as the building continues to age, Fitts said.
I intentionally used "placidly" to describe my conversation with museum president Robertson last week.
She, Hyde, Hooks and other board members sat down with The Commercial Appeal's editorial board about a year ago to discuss the museum controversy. Robertson was agitated.
Reminded of the difference in temperament, she said that at the time of the editorial board meeting she felt the museum and its board members were being subjected to unfair and misleading allegations.
"It wasn't about the mission; it was about control," she said of the museum's critics.
She said the controversy resulted in some positives, including more community interest in the museum.
"I think we've made good progress of fully opening the board to the public. We've done a good job of fulfilling provisions spelled out in the memorandum of understanding," Robertson said, except for creation of an advisory board. "We're still working on that.
"When you're doing valuable work, you're always going to have some criticisms," she added. "That's OK because they have the best interests of the museum at heart."
Attendance is up. The museum had more than 212,000 visitors in fiscal year 2007-2008. That's 22,000 more than in 2006-2007, which represented an increase of 10,000 visitors over 2005-2006.
Robertson said attendance is tracking higher for fiscal year 2008-2009.
Because admission fees do not cover the museum's expenses, it is important that the board has members who can raise funds to keep the doors open. That's usually the case for most nonprofit boards.
Museum board members are expected to donate or solicit $1,000 a year. Robertson said a few give significantly more through sponsorships and additional financial support.
"Museums can't function without corporate support," she said.
As for perceptions that Hyde runs the museum, Robertson said no one on the board micro-manages Robertson and her staff.
Do board members serve too long? Robertson said the board does have term limits but there are criteria that allow members to stay beyond their terms.
"There are members whose efforts are vital and important to the health of the museum. In these tough times, when we're looking at a massive renovation, would you not want some of your more ardent supporters on the board?" she asked.
That financial burden also includes finding the estimated $15 million to $20 million to replace outdated technology and infrastructure that could enhance the museum experience.
On the whole, Robertson said she's "at peace with what we're doing here," adding that "we strike a good balance of being a living and exciting education experience while recognizing that the museum is a shrine to one of the world's great leaders."
No one disagrees on that point.
Jerome Wright is citizens editor for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 901-529-5830.
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