The struggle for community control of the National Civil Rights Museum has entered a final and most critical phase. At 4:00 PM on February 21st the Museum's Board will show whether and how it responds to the pleas of community and national civil rights leaders for more sensitivity and diversity on the governing board of this, Black America's Holiest and Most Historical Site.
A year ago blacks were a minority of the Board. Routinely the public was not informed of when the board met or how it operated, nor was the public invited to its meetings. The group operated with a secrecy which reached its zenith last summer as three black state legislators were ejected from a board meeting. Also, last year we saw the photographs of the treasured Museum with the rusting car display, rotting front doors, tattered picture window curtains, water stained and discolored outside walls, peeling paint, cobwebs and overflowing trash in front of the museum.
In the last year hundreds have attended community meetings and rallies to free the publicly owned facility from the tight grip of conservative corporate control. Expressions of concern have come from black labor leader Bill Lucy, Martin Luther King lll, SCLC National President Charles Steele, Dick Gregory and others. This struggle culminated in a protest march and demonstration December 8th in front of the Museum which drew community participants, veteran activists from the Mississippi civil rights movement, and students from the University of Memphis and U.T. Knoxville. The demonstration was led by Lucy and civil rights icon and D.C. City Councilman Mayor Marion Barry.
Several things have happened since the civil rights march December 8th. AFSCME leader Lucy has been a voice of moderation. He proposed a compromise to the controversy to add eight new members to the Board with the nominees to be screened by a joint committee of board , civil rights and community representatives. Lucy believed that such a group sitting in good faith and all sharing an interest in the museums' progress would reach a consensus that would be broadly accepted.
While I would have preferred more dramatic changes, in the interest of conciliation I supported the Lucy plan. He presented his proposal and won agreement from board and museum spokespersons. When he told me they had agreed to his approach I suggested he verify this. He contacted Beverly Robertson and Greg Duckett and to his chagrin he was told that other board members had rejected the plan.
About the same time State Representatives Barbara Cooper and G.A. Hardaway, Attorney Lorice Smith and Cindy Pollak met with Museum officials and presented them a diverse list of civil rights and community people who had agreed to serve on the board if asked. Though the group had been told initially that up to ten new members would be added, they were told at the meeting this number would be limited to six. As with the Lucy proposal, this group asked for input on the final nominees to be recommended to the Board. Ms. Smith and her delegation made a conscientious and sincere effort to present a diverse list of candidates including background information and took the time to confirm in advance that these candidates would be willing to serve. You find attached Lorice Smith's memorandum to Museum Director Beverley Robertson summarizing their meeting.
Following the meeting with Ms. Smith, another diverse list of Board candidates with a history of experience and contacts in the civil rights community was presented the Board. These nominations were submitted by the Arkansas Delta Truth and Justice Center which is deeply involved with civil rights supporters and students across the country. Some of the best and most committed minds are on this list and have agreed to serve on the Board if asked. You will find those nominations attached.
The Museum Board disregarded Ms. Smith's groups recommendation that it relax its requirement that Board candidates would have to donate and raise at least two thousand dollars a year to serve. In keeping this requirement the Board seems not to care that a financial litmus test eliminates the dominant group of blacks and civil rights supporters who Dr. King fought and died with. Remember that we raised more than nine million dollars to build the Museum with only ten thousand dollars of corporate money, that from Lucky Hearts Cosmetics. The Hyde contribution to build the lobby sculpture came well after the construction funds were in place.
During the civil rights movement we had white moneyed support but they weren't making the policy and strategy choices. Those allies instead had the sense of fairness to let black people stay in control of this part of our destiny. Often such wealthy sponsors serve on Advisory or Honorary Boards and offer their input.
The corporate and other well to do people who currently serve on the Museum Board are needed and welcome to raise money. However this doesn't qualify them to make the judgments on how our black history should be told, or what priorities and future directions should be set here at the site of black America's last "Poor People's Campaign". The vision in the original museum exhibition of the intense movement struggle reflected my first hand observation and involvement with Movement battles and organizers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. We envisioned that after the museum opened it would work with other black institutions, scholars and leaders as a Center or Institute to study and help find solutions to empower minorities and the poor for whom Dr. King died.
A white Board leader told me last week that the Board does not intend that the Museum get into issues, studies and collaborations to attack the economic and social ills facing Black America. He said we need to find another place rather than the Museum to do that. My response was that as new board members come in they may have a broader sense of mission. Furthermore this Lorraine Motel site is important to the world not because of this board, but because it is where King died. Those in control of this state facility should at least be open to consider embracing, endorsing and forming an alliance with others in the country who would give support and resources to build such an Affiliated Center or Institute. From the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and New York Library's Schomburg Center, their leaders recognize they are not isolated sites of history under glass. These facilities collaborate, hold conferences and do research and study on current social needs and threats to human rights.
The Civil Rights Museum 's nominating committee has already gone through the dozens of community and labor leaders, black scholars, and civil rights activist and supporters and come up with a list of six or seven names it will submit to the Board for approval. Museum Director Beverly Robertson was not sure whether these selections were made before or after receiving board recommendations at the meeting with Smith, Pollak and the black legislators. This nominating group of two blacks and two whites, First Tennessee banker Herb Hilliard, Baptist Hospital attorney Greg Duckett, businessman Billy Orgill, and Lucia Giulliland met once.
The Museum Board plans to meet this Thursday at 4:00 P.M. at the Museum to act on the nominating committees recommendations. Twenty eight of the existing thirty-one board members plan to continue sitting on the board. Under state guidelines Thursday's meeting is open to the public.
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