As the National Civil Rights Museum honored the 2022 Freedom Award honorees, the annual celebration afforded a fresh opportunity to ponder where the city of Memphis stands relative to reaching “the promised land” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the night before his assassination.
Held last Thursday (Oct. 20) at the Orpheum, the gala served to bestow the Freedom Award upon Fred Smith, founder of FedEx; civil rights historian Taylor Branch and Isabel Wilkerson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the so-called “Great Migration” of Black citizens out of the South.
For NCRM President and CEO Dr. Russell Wigginton, it was the first full in-person Freedom Award event he has presided over since succeeding the long-serving Terri Lee Freeman. Last year’s event was a hybrid affair shared via social media.
As he made his red-carpet appearance, Wiggington fielded the question about how Memphis moves forward in realizing Dr. King’s vision of “the promised land.”
“Without question, we must continue working on Dr. King’s vision for economic empowerment for those who have none,” said Wigginton.
“There are too many still in poverty, too many still without equal opportunity…but we remain hopeful that we will get to that promised land…
“We will continue to struggle until we effectively address economic empowerment. We must continue that fight. Memphis is a resilient city. We are a resilient people…”
The Freedom Award gala yielded a string of serendipitous and extraordinary moments, with the works of the honorees shining a light on elements that surely are building blocks for the “promised land” destination.
The audience rode a sudden wave of emotion as FedEx’s Smith, who is included among Forbes 100 Greatest Living Business Minds, recalled his days in Viet Nam.
“There was a man, my staff sergeant, Richard Johnson,” said Smith as the huge screen on the Orpheum Theatre stage showed a striking image of Staff Sergeant Richard Johnson in tan uniform. He is African American.
“We fought together, got in some tight spots,” said Smith. “He trained me. … We were close friends. Before we could get home, he was killed in the line of duty. His son, Richard, is here tonight.”
The younger Johnson, seated near the front, stood and waved to the audience, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause.
“Your father would have been so proud of you,” Smith said as the screen showed the son wiping away tears.
“I dedicate this Freedom Award to Staff Sergeant Richard Johnson,” said a tearful Smith amid a roar of applause that an extended ovation.
Branch, recognized as one of the foremost historians of the civil rights movement for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning trilogy “America in the King Years,” said he was “overjoyed to be here.”
He put that joy in context.
“There are reasons for hope, but the rising appeals to violence is ever-present,” said Branch.
While a call for “racial healing” sounds good, it is, in fact, not a real concept, said Branch.
“…To heal is to restore a previous condition of wholeness, which has never been existent in the United States…,” Branch said.
During a brief interview on the red carpet, Branch said that “Jan. 6 was no surprise. …Votes don’t matter to Putin or to the stormtroopers who invaded the capital.”
A chord of optimism ended Branch’s remarks as he urged for the emulation of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, calling them “pioneers and modern founders” just as surely as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
“Let us all be disciples of freedom,” he urged.
Wilkerson spoke of her chronicle of the Great Migration, calling herself “a child of the Great Migration.”
Wilkerson’s father, a Tuskegee Airman, joined the six million African Americans who fled the racially oppressive South for destinations in the North, seeking better opportunities during the first half of the 20th century.
“Black people were immigrants in the land of their birth,” said Wilkerson. “No other group had to act like immigrants. They defected from the Jim Crow South because of the caste system that goes back 400 years in our country…
“My father … would devote most of his life trying to understand that which propelled him to leave the place he loved so much, but he felt did not love him back…”
Wilkerson said she continues her work on the next project about caste, which is a follow-up of her newest release, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”
Also honored during the gala was Memphis-born Jeffery Robinson, a longtime ACLU executive, whose work on racial justice and education inspired the 2022 documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” currently on Netflix. Some segments were filmed at the museum.