by Florence M. Howard —
The history of the National Civil Rights Museum is rooted in the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was gunned down as he stood on the balcony of the then-Lorraine Hotel here in Memphis.
Dr. King had come to support Memphis’ striking Sanitation Workers. My stepfather, James Winton, was one of those workers.
My mother, Frankie Mae Winton, strongly encouraged my father to participate and so he did. She even rode one of the many chartered buses headed to Dr. King’s funeral so that she could be there in person.
Having grown up in the cotton fields of segregated Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, my mother had a sense of history. She was born in 1937 and was the daughter of the Rev. Robert McAtee and his wife, Mattie Chism McAtee.
I don’t know if it was growing up in Mississippi, all the years she worked for successful Jewish employers, or an innate sense of justice, but my mother, 5’9”, always stood tall on issues of justice. She always stood up for the underdog.
For example, when we lived in Midtown near the Hogue and Knott supermarket on Lamar, we once encountered a white store manager who had caught a Black teenager stealing a package of hot dogs. He held onto the young man, loudly accusing him of stealing from the store.
As the confrontation unfolded, my mother announced from her position a few feet away that, “You’ve called the police, so let him alone.”
Everything stopped. The manager ceased his tirade and the boy looked sheepishly at my mother.
It was my mother’s sense of right and wrong that prevailed in everything that she did. She was truly the daughter of a Baptist minister and was a Civil Rights activist in her own right. She served on the usher board at Greater Middle Baptist Church on Lamar, which was pastored by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, who served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992.
The National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Award was inaugurated in 1991 to highlight the contributions to freedom, equality, and justice made by distinguished recipients such as Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, and James Farmer.
That brilliant idea has lit the path for many to stand up for right and to be counted among those who sincerely care about people – all people.