by Erica R. Williams, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

With evidence aplenty of the historic value and worldwide drawing power of the National Civil Rights Museum, Executive Director Terri Lee Freeman is striving to ensure that the Memphis staple grows as a pillar of hope for local residents.

“We would do the museum and the community a disservice, if we didn’t see this community as our own,” Freeman said.

Only the second executive director that the downtown museum at 450 Mulberry St. has known since its inception in 1991, Freeman and her team were preparing with singleness of purpose for the museum’s annual Freedom Awards on Thursday when she carved out time to talk with The New Tri-State Defender.

The 2017 ceremony comes at a pivotal time in national and local civil rights, Freeman said.

“All of the previous Freedom Awards have been important as they honor those who have made contributions in civil rights, but this ones is perhaps one of the most relevant as it relates to the times,” Freeman noted. “We are really in a turbulent time; and I can’t help but wonder what would Dr. King think?”

Beverly Robertson, who retired as executive director of the museum in 2014 after a 16-year-tenure, agreed with her successor.

“With the recent activities involving white supremacists and the reversal of laws that benefit those who are disenfranchised, the award ceremony should remind us to remain ever vigilant and that we must pay attention.”

The red carpet event is also taking place during the yearlong commemoration of the 50th commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination. MLK50 is what museum leaders tagged the series of events, seminars, and community partnerships committed to a year of peace and action.

The commemoration activities began in April and will end on April 4, 2018, 50 years to the day that King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which the museum encompasses.

“Dr. King was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things,” Freeman said. “With MLK50 we also have the opportunity as ordinary people to do extraordinary things, if we focus on just that.”

Freeman said she and her team were deliberate about getting the community involved in the commemorative activities. The same intent applied to this year’s Freedom Award recipients. Hugh Masekela, a South African composer and radical activist will be recognized along with Morris Dees, a civil rights lawyer who focuses on racial discrimination and combatting hate groups; but perhaps the most deliberate recipient of this year’s ceremony is the Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

“We weren’t certain she would say yes,” Freeman admitted. “As you can imagine, this isn’t one of her favorite cities because of her father’s assassination; but we were deliberate in asking her because of the significance of this year.”

In addition to honoring Rev. King and the other recipients during the ceremony, there will also be a special tribute to the 1300 Memphis sanitation workers, who Dr. King spent many of his last hours assisting in their fight for equal wages and just treatment.  A student forum and pre-show gala will precede the official award ceremony held at the Orpheum Theatre.

Intentionally, the theme of the award ceremony and the MLK50 commemoration activities is, “Where Do We Go From Here?” Robertson said the title is fitting.

“We don’t live in a color blind society and the struggle for racial equity is not over,” she said. “It is more important as we explore the extent to which things have changed over the past 50 years that we also ponder were we must go from here.”

Freeman looks forward to the end of the MLK50 tribute activities as a time to build and continue a call to action.

“April 4th is important,” she said referring to the anniversary commencement date. “But April 5th is even more critical. This is when we really have to figure out how to continue to build, grow our communities, and continue what Dr. King started.”

(For more information on MLK50 or to find out how you can get involved, visit