National Civil Rights Museum unveils Freedom Award winners

The Commercial Appeal
USA Today Network
John Beifuss

South African jazz artist and freedom fighter Hugh Masekela (who had a No. 1 hit in 1968 with “Grazing in the Grass”), second-generation activist Bernice A. King (youngest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s four children), and Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees (who won a $7 million judgment in a lynching case that bankrupted one of America’s largest Ku Klux Klan organizations) will be this year’s recipients of the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards.

“When we identified these three honorees, we didn’t know what was going to happen last weekend,” said civil rights museum president Terri Lee Freeman, referring to the Charlottesville violence, the remarks by President Trump that were praised by neo-Nazis, and subsequent calls to remove Confederate monuments. “I don’t think we could actually have chosen better honorees for this moment in time.”

Freeman said Masekela, 78, Bernice King, 54, and Dees, 80, “exemplify Dr. King’s mission and legacy of fighting for and protecting the rights of every man, woman and child, regardless of their race or social enconomic status,” but especially “the marginalized, subjugated and disenfranchised.”

All three have experience resisting racism at multiple levels, from Masekela’s battles against South Africa’s apartheid system of institutionalized discrimination to King’s ministry as the first female president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to Dees’ lawsuit strategies to bankrupt civil rights violators. 

The signature event of the museum build around the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 5, 1968, the Freedom Awards will be held Oct. 19 at a new location, downtown’s historic Orpheum theater. It will be preceded earlier in the day by a youth forum at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church that will enable students to meet and interact with the honorees.

The 26th annual awards ceremony also will include a special tribute to the Memphis sanitation workers, whose struggles brought Dr. King to Memphis, and inspired the rally cry “I Am a Man,” which came to exemplify Dr. King’s assertion that “all labor has dignity.”

The Freedom Awards will function as a prelude, in a way, for next year’s 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, which the museum plans to recognize with multiple events. The awards ceremony’s theme is “Where Do We Go from Here?,” a question aimed at not just the museum but society in general as to marks the grim anniversary.

Some of those leading the call to remove Confederate monuments from Memphis public parks have said the statues should be removed by at least the assassination anniversary. Said Freeman: “I don’t think the issue is going to go away until the statues go away.”

Past recipients of the Freedom Award have included Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Sidney Poitier, Stevie Wonder, the Dalai Lama, and at least three people so famous — Bono, Oprah and Usher — they don’t need last names. Sponsors for this year’s ceremony include FedEx, International Paper and the Hyde Family Foundation.



7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, the Orpheum, 203 S. Main.

Red carpet ceremony and pre-show gala, 5-7 p.m. Oct. 19, Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, 225 S. Main. 

Student forum, 10 a.m., Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, 70 N. Bellevue. Admission free.

Freedom Awards tickets range from $200-$250 and will be available at