The National Civil Rights Museum’s thirtieth awarding of its Freedom Awards was an elegant – albeit mostly virtual – presentation that marked the museum’s 30th anniversary and pointed to paths forward.
Accounting for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s gala affair (Oct. 14) was a hybrid affair, with the Orpheum serving as the in-person venue.
While accepting her award, along with Poor People’s Campaign leaders, Dr. William J. Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, former first lady Michelle Obama praised the sacrifices of parents and grandparents, who taught lessons of unity in a common purpose.
“I accept this award in their honor,” said Obama via video. “The people in my life and yours, who taught us not just who we are and who we could be, but they taught us how we should carry ourselves.…
“They knew deep in their bones, we all rise and fall together.… Together, we can move mountains,” said Obama, emphasizing the fundamental necessity of a moral underpinning.
The gala unfolded with the precision attendees have come to expect over the years from the high-profile affair. Actor Lamann Rucker was onsite at the Orpheum and again serving as emcee.
And new National Civil Rights Museum President Dr. Russ Wigginton was at the helm for the first Freedom Awards under his watch.
Barber and Theoharis received their awards on stage, with each delivering acceptance remarks about their work in the Poor People’s Campaign, calling the entity’s work, “A National Call for Moral Revival” and making it clear that there was more to come; and soon.
“…Ending poverty is not only morally right, but it makes economic sense,” said Barber. “If everybody had healthcare, it would build the economy. If everybody made a living wage when you go to work, it would pump billions of dollars into the economy.”
Barber’s address included a segment in which he detailed with stats the needs of poor people in Tennessee. As Barber delivered his address, the virtual chatroom was abuzz, with many writing, “Preach Dr. Barber.”
Theoharis praised “a new and unsettling force,” which is rising up to “save the soul of this democracy and nation.
“It has become clear that people are coming together, demanding justice,” said Theoharis.
“There are millions of poor people in this country who have little or nothing to lose.… This is why we will, we must organize and unite people around the vision that when you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.
“Poverty is not divine necessity. It is a human creation…”
The evening included a special tribute to Darnella Frazier, who was 17 in 2020 when she recorded the video of then-Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd and killing him in the process. She was interviewed on a video call by Faith Morris, the Freedom Award presentation producer and the museum’s chief marketing and external affairs officer.
In response to a question from Morris, Frazier shared how the notoriety – that resulted from her video going viral and becoming a key element in the subsequent trial – had changed her life profoundly. And while some of that change was not for the better, some of it has been, particularly opportunities that she likely never would have had, said Frazier.
The killing of Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic were laced together by Dr. Michael Eric Dyson in what the author, minister, scholar and media personality termed a “syndemic,” or, the convergence of two pandemics.
“On the one hand, an extraordinary virus that claimed the lives of millions around the globe.… And with particular viciousness in this country of claiming the lives of Black and Brown people disproportionately … this extraordinary pandemic revealed underlying conditions that render inequality a truth in our country,” he said.
Noting “a racial dynamic that has been with us since 1619,” Dyson said George Floyd’s neck became “both the auditorium and the sanctuary for the vicious revelation of white supremacy’s exigency, its urgency, its desire to undermine Black life….”
Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck “is a metaphor for how the knee of America has been on the necks of Black people in this country,” said Dyson. “We realize that the racial reckoning that is upon this nation must continue.…”
Throughout the evening there were multiple references and salutes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on the balcony of Lorraine Motel, which is the centerpiece of the museum that opened in 1991.
As he was preparing to leaving the stage, Barber paid tribute to King, speaking as if he was talking to King directly.
“Rest well, Martin,” said Barber. “You should be with us now. But shout from glory, and give us your direction from heaven, ’cause we intend to see this through.”