Freedom Awards | 11.12.11

 civil-rights-icon 75We all talk about making history, but very few of us actually get to take part in it.

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National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis

I have never had the pleasure to be a part of something so magnificent and historic in my life until this month. As the communications intern for the National Civil Rights Museum, I got to attend the acclaimed Freedom Awards. This year marks the Museum’s 20th year, so everything had to be done bigger and better than before, and it was. From the production to the honorees to the music and minute details, this year’s awards were certainly a red carpet affair (yes, we had a red carpet, too).

Because of its 20th anniversary, the Freedom Awards honored 11 individuals in 7 categories, and icons of the American Civil Rights Movement. Actor Hill Harper and phenomenal teacher Marva Collins were the Legacy and Pioneer Award recipients for Education; actor Danny Glover and magazine editor extraordinaire Susan L. Taylor won the Pioneer and Legacy Award for Activism, respectively; basketball great Alonzo Mourning and hall of famer Bill Russell, the Legacy and Pioneer Awards for Sports Community; Cicely Tyson and Kirk Whalum grabbed the Pioneer and Legacy Award for the Arts; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) the Pioneer and Legacy Award for Legal Justice; Sen. Bill Frist, M.D. received the Pioneer Award for Humanitarian; and Usher Raymond got the Legacy Award for Philanthropy.

Icons of the American Civil Rights were honored, too. They include Leola Brown Montgomery from the life-changing Brown v. Board of Education, Dolores C. Huerta, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Ed King, Rev. James Lawson, Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, and John Seigenthaler.

civil-rights 250I don’t believe many 20-somethings get to have such a wondrous experience, not only for your resume but for your heart: to touch the hands of those great women and men who literally paved the way for you to achieve success, no matter how big or small.

The event was emceed by actress Wendy Racquel Robinson, who wore a beautiful scarlet gown. As the show-opening video tribute played, there was not a dry eye in the house, as we saw the images parade across the scene of the hardships and triumphs these icons endured.

As each category approached and the honorees were recognized, some of the most profound words graced their lips. Susan L. Taylor apologized to Dr. King for her generation dropping the ball after his death, stressing that it is vital we all give a hand in improving our societies. “Hands that help are holier than lips that pray,”Taylor said. Bill Russell acknowledged Jackie Robinson as person who gave him courage to do it his way, and Alonzo Mourning, too, stressed the importance of being of service to your community, and how that sometimes “we need to be reminded of greatness. It reminds us of what we need to do.”

The legendary Cicely Tyson received a standing ovation as she gave her acceptance speech, relating her journey to this moment. She said that she only prays that she, too, can be an inspiration as Dr. King has been to each one of us. Of all the honorees and their speeches, the one who took me by surprise and resonated the most me was Usher, honored for Philanthropy through his New Look Foundation.

I had the pleasure of observing Rev. King, who recanted vividly the Nashville sit-ins, telling us each student at the counter’s name—Leola Montgomery Brown, Rev. Lawson, Hill Harper, James Ingram, and Kim Keenan (NAACP)—during his tour of the Museum earlier that day. Although I couldn’t read his emotions, I was curious to learn what he thought and how he felt.

civil-rights usherAs Usher walked out onto the stage, you could tell something sparked within him. Yes, he’s a great singer, performer, and looker, but times are few and far between that we see him outside of that entertainer shell, and at this moment he was extremely human.

He stared out into the audience and recounted his tour of the Museum and said that it made him feel angry, helpless, intrigued, and overwhelmed. “I always say I’m standing on the shoulders of great leaders, but tonight,” he said. “I stand on the shoulders of giant leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey…We have to make a difference. I really want to make a difference.”

As heads nodded across the audience in recognition and understanding that this man was far more than all of his images, that he actually had an intelligent brain to go along with those looks behind the music. As tears glazed his eyes, he closed his speech with these words: “A man should not be judged by his wealth or popularity, but by his influence and the content of his character.” Usher had certifiably closed the show and left the thousands in that room with something to think about. James Ingram, who had performed earlier in the ceremony, took the stage for the finale with Kirk Whalum.

I sat in my seat thinking deeply, re-aligning my mindset and knowing that I had just participated in history. We all talk about making history, but very few of us actually get to take part in it, especially with the great company I had. I’m not talking specifically about the celebrities, but to the National Civil Rights Museum staff who make it possible year after year for the Museum to expand, educate, and celebrate the history of the past and that which is being made now.

In 1991, when the National Civil Rights Museum opened, I’m sure they knew it was going to be great, but didn’t have any idea it would have surpassed Memphis. It’s an international symbol of progress, opportunity, and influence. You can’t come to this place and leave unaffected. It just doesn’t happen, a proven fact that I heard from the honorees themselves, both in conversation with them and through Twitter, as Usher (@UsherRaymondIV) raved about how he had been affected.

“Last night being honored in Memphis was one the greatest moments of my career…no my life. Music is Hard work. Philanthropy is Heart work,” he said. While in Memphis I also visited the National Civil Rights Museum. I stood in the very spot MLK was shot down, brought me to tears. Visit it. Visiting the museum was eye opening for me. If you have children and are able to visit…please do. It doesn’t matter what color you are. Though we have overcome a great deal of prejudice and racial tension. Know that, it still exist in America. It’s just silently and subtle.”

And to think I was blessed with the opportunity to be a part of the team. I’m forever grateful to Mrs. Beverly Robertson, National Civil Rights Museum President; Ms. Gwen Harmon, Director of Governmental and Community Affairs; and Ms. Connie Dyson, Communications Coordinator for believing in me enough to give me a chance, and to the rest of the staff for welcoming me with open arms. It has truly been an experience I will never forget, one that will be dear to my heart forever.

Make sure you come and get this experience, too, by visiting the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis: the assassination place of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Follow the Museum on Twitter @NCRMuseum and like it on Facebook. We look forward to seeing all of you soon. | Ashley White

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