There was a moment in the April 5 two-hour reopening ceremony for the renovated National Civil Rights Museum that demonstrated the tension that still exists when it comes to the important issue of who is telling the story of history.
It came as D’Army Bailey, leader of the foundation that bought the Lorraine Motel on the courthouse steps in 1982 and the first leader of the museum, spoke in the museum courtyard.
The ceremony was heavy on speeches as well as identifying and thanking financial supporters of the $27 million effort that is in the process of raising another $12 million toward an endowment.
“One of the things we have to be concerned about is that when these corporations give their money, don’t let them set your agenda,” Bailey said. “It’s alright for them to give us help. But this is our struggle. And we have to be the ones to set the strategy, and we have to be the ones to decide the direction and what we do and how we do it.”
Bailey thanked Memphis philanthropist J.R. “Pitt” Hyde for his many contributions to the museum through the Hyde Family Foundations, whose support has also been crucial for the museum’s annual Freedom Awards.
“You’ve been helpful with your cash, and I appreciate it,” Bailey said specifically to Hyde. “But don’t forget, we have to be the ones who set the agenda.”
Bailey’s appearance and his introduction by host Tavis Smiley as “in the beginning there was D’Army Bailey” demonstrated something of a reconciliation in an issue that has flared in public view several times in the life of the museum.
It comes as museum president Beverly Robertson prepares to retire at the end of June. The search for a new museum president is underway.
“It may not even hurt to break the glass ceiling and consider a man,” Bailey said.
Robertson, on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines,” indicated the museum is likely to remain a place for discussion of the past and its relevance to the present.
An example is the museum’s approach to slavery, the first gallery that visitors enter at the renovated museum.
“It really engages you in a visceral way and helps you understand the early beginnings of this country,” she said. “What you begin to realize is that enslaved people became commodities. They were traded for rum and tobacco and cotton and sugar. That means that the slave trade, or enslaved people, built the global economy. They were the global economy. They created Wall Street because they were exchanged for money.”
The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Joining Robertson on the program was Daphene McFerren, executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.
“Poverty has always been an issue of civil rights,” McFerren said of the institute’s reach into the present. “It didn’t happen overnight. We have to first, I think, conclude that we don’t have anybody in our communities we can lose – that everyone’s valuable.”
Robertson said she welcomed discussions about such current issues as what Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has identified as the problem of “black boy crime” – violence from and directed toward young African-American boys and men and the response of the criminal justice system toward them.
“We can’t just talk about it. … I think part of this is this sense of hopelessness coupled with the sense that they can make money fast. … If they can’t make it fast, they don’t see a way to do that,” she said. “That’s a bit of a culture that’s been created by what they see on TV, by what they see around them. … Each one of us has a role to play. We can go over to Foote Homes and identify a child and adopt a young brother.”
“Men form the foundation of our communities. … When you lose your males, especially in black communities, you destabilize the communities,” she said. “Some of the things that we assume, being middle-class people, is because we live this life unconsciously through a network of friends and know how to navigate and create friendships, wealth and maintain jobs. If you’re in poverty and you don’t have access to those tools, then it creates generational poverty.”