Saturday, September 29, 2007

There's No Progress Without Struggle...And IN-Fighting....The NCRM In Crisis

Civil Rights Museum Transcends Fight Over Control

Published: Sunday, 09/16/07

I was on the telephone Thursday with the noted civil rights activist the Rev. James Lawson when he said, "A museum should become a proud culture center of the history of the people of this country because the people make the country great.

"It's the people, struggling to have equality, liberty and justice for all. That history is the most important history. So a museum ought to become a symbol of that for everyone.''

When I think of such a museum, or such a symbol, one of the first that comes to mind is the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. It's a museum that reflects the passion, sorrow and triumph of the civil rights movement from 1954 to 1968.

"This is something that can keep the fires burning. For folks who are too young to remember the movement, this will be the perfect teacher,'' the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, a prominent civil rights activist and former member of the Federal Communications Commission, said during an interview for the winter 1997 edition of American Legacy magazine. "For those who have firsthand memories like myself, it'll be like going home.''

And then there was D'Army Bailey, a Memphis circuit-court judge and civil rights activist who was recently bypassed for a seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court, who came up with the idea of transforming the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated into a museum.

"We wanted to transform it into some kind of memorial to Dr. King,'' Bailey told me in 1996 as I prepared to write about the National Civil Rights Museum for American Legacy. "We wanted it to be a recreation of that era. We also wanted to highlight the heroes and dramas of that period.

"If we could recreate the spirit, the tension, the harshness and the courage of that time, we could give visitors a sense of purpose and make them want to carry on the work started by the Freedom Riders and Dr. King.''

I remembered all of that and more about the museum as I began getting e-mails recently about a squabble taking place these days over the operation and future of the museum.

"Two veterans of the civil rights movement told state legislators Wednesday they're concerned that the public doesn't have input into the operations of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis,'' the Commercial Appeal reported in its Thursday edition. "Rev. James Lawson, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., across the South, and Bill Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, urged the legislature's Black Caucus to use the upcoming renewal of the state-owned museum's lease to require more legislative and public oversight for the museum.''

The meeting where Lawson and Lucy spoke was a follow-up meeting to one that took place at the labor center on Beale Street Monday night. The purpose, according to a press release that went out "is to hear factual information from state officials about the privatization of the National Civil Rights Museum. The meeting will also afford citizens the opportunity to have their questions answered and concerns heard.''

"The museum (the nonprofit Lorraine Civil Rights Foundation, which leases the museum's property from the state) has wanted a long-term lease of 50 years, and once wanted to buy it for a dollar,'' Bailey, co-founder of the museum who is no longer an official with the facility, said Thursday. "That's the issue on the table now and that would be giving away black heritage to a group of wealthy whites who would own and control it and define it for the next 50 years.

"With the lease they want to be able to redo the exhibit, which means retelling the story of the civil rights movement and interpreting where it ought to be going. This would be the ultimate measure of corporate control of our destiny, because they would control our history and legacy. That's what this fight is all about.''

I twice tried to contact longtime board member J.R. "Pitt" Hyde to discuss the matter but had no luck.

"The legislative Black Caucus did decide they want the (museum's) lease (which expires at the end of September) to be renewed for only six months, until they have a chance to put together a legislative case for the state to take proud ownership for being in collaboration with the private foundation,'' Lawson told me. "That is a public-community enterprise. It's a state-owned building.

"The museum doesn't understand when they have a state-owned building for $1 a year, they are actually receiving thousands of dollars in subsidies from the people's tax funds.''

This issue is one that state officials and the taxpayers of Tennessee should be concerned about. After all, when the museum was developed in 1991, it was done so with donations from schoolchildren and the Memphis community, both black and white, as well as state, county and city funds.

But the best thing about this is that one interested party told me that in the end, he thinks everyone is interested in the National Civil Rights Museum being a success, now and in the long term. I think all those civil-rights heroes would want that, too.

Published: Sunday, 09/16/07

*Listen To Judge D'Army Bailey Discuss The NCRM In Crisis On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio:

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