National Civil Rights Museum celebrates 2022 Freedom Award honorees

[The Commercial Appeal] National Civil Rights Museum celebrates 2022 Freedom Award honorees

National Civil Rights Museum celebrates 2022 Freedom Award honorees

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National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards 2022: A look at red carpet ahead of ceremony

Honorees and guests gathered at the Orpheum in Memphis for the annual National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Award ceremony Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

Ray Padilla, Memphis Commercial Appeal

Authors and activists whose work requires audiences to make an honest reckoning with America's troubled racial history were among those honored on Thursday night during the National Civil Rights Museum's annual Freedom Award presentation at the Orpheum.

Relatively formal in attire but celebratory in spirit, the ceremony was the first public Freedom Award gala since the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. That year's event was canceled, while the 2021 awards were presented in a livestreamed "virtual" show at the Orpheum that was not open to the public.

Past Freedom Award ceremonies have sometimes showcased celebrity civil rights champions so famous — as in the cases of Bono, Oprah, and Usher — that they don't even need last names.

But this year's awards emphasized scholarship. The honorees included two Pulitzer Prize-winning chroniclers of the Black experience and 20th-century race relations in the U.S.: Civil rights historian Taylor Branch, author of the landmark trilogy, "America in the King Years," and Isabel Wilkerson, author of the best-seller "The Warmth of Other Suns," about the so-called "Great Migration" of Black citizens out of the South.

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The third Freedom Award recipient was FedEx founder and executive chairman Fred Smith, a longtime supporter of the National Civil Rights Museum and similar institutions. According to the museum's announcement about this year's awards, Smith, through FedEx, has launched programs in support of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and "influenced millions in contributions to advancing inclusion, empowering economic opportunity, and encouraging learning and leadership for nonprofit organizations."

Also honored with a special tribute during the awards show was Memphis-born lawyer Jeffery Robinson, a longtime ACLU executive whose activism inspired the 2022 documentary, "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America," currently on Netflix. Based on the content of Robinson's lecture tour, the documentary complements the work of Branch and Wilkerson, as Robinson presents a fact-based appraisal of racial inequities and provides the type of context and history often missing from school lessons. Robinson was not present to accept his award but expressed thanks via a videotaped message.

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Museum officials acknowledged that this year's Freedom Award selections were intended, in part, to offer a rebuke to recent legislative efforts in Tennessee and elsewhere that make it illegal to teach school students lessons about race that would cause "discomfort" or "guilt" because of "the individual's race or sex" (to cite words and phrases in a Tennessee bill adopted in 2021).

In addition, the selection of Branch — whose trilogy about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. numbers close to 3,000 pages — is a reminder that the National Civil Rights Museum was built on the site of the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed in 1968.

The museum opened in 1991 to celebrate King's legacy and to continue his work — "to educate and serve as a catalyst to inspire action to create positive social change," according to its mission statement. Billed by the museum as "one of the nation's most prestigious events," the Freedom Award ceremony was launched in 1995. Typically, three recipients are named each year.

According to the museum website, the award "honors individuals who have made significant contributions in civil rights and who have laid the foundation for present and future leaders in the battle for human rights."

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Actors, authors, athletes, musicians, clergy, capitalists, diplomats, dissidents, politicians, presidents, prime ministers and Nobel Peace Prize laureates are among the close to 100 Freedom Award honorees to date. The roll call includes Coretta Scott King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Sidney Poitier, Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Bishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, among others.

In 2018, future president Joe Biden was a recipient, while Michelle Obama was among last year's honorees.

The presenting sponsors for this year's Freedom Awards were International Paper, FedEx, Nike, the Hyde Family Foundation, and the Ford Motor Company.

This story will be updated.