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Civil Rights Museum names winners of 2022 Freedom Awards

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Civil rights historian Taylor Branch, FedEx founder Fred Smith, and Isabel Wilkerson, author of the best-selling book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the so-called “Great Migration” of black citizens out of the South, are the National Civil Rights winners of the museum’s 2022 Freedom Award, museum officials announced Wednesday.

The awards will be presented Oct. 20 at the Orpheum, in a ceremony that will represent the Freedom Award’s first public gala since the 2020 COVID pandemic. That year’s event has been canceled, while the awards 2021 were re-livened a “virtual” show at the Orpheum which was not open to the public.

Museum officials acknowledged that the selection of Branch and Wilkerson – two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers whose work chronicles the black experience and examines the history of race relations in the United States, often with a strong emphasis on Memphis – was a rebuke to recent legislative efforts in Tennessee. and elsewhere that prohibit teaching school children lessons about race that would cause “discomfort” or “guilt” because of “the race or sex of the individual” (to quote words and phrases in a draft Tennessee law passed in 2021).

Fred Smith

Museum president Russell T. Wigginton Jr. said the museum’s awards committee is trying to select winners who are “particularly relevant at this time.”

He said Branch and Wilkerson’s writings offer crucial information about “African American life, culture, and history,” but also provide an “educational context” for understanding racial attitudes in America.

Taylor branch

Also, said Wigginton, Branch’s selection — author of a 2,912-page trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. known as “America in the King Years” – recalls 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 continue his work — “to educate and serve as a catalyst to inspire action to create positive social change,” according to its mission statement. Said Wigginton: “His ideals are central to our mission.”

In more detail, the winners are:

  • Taylor branch, author of the historic civil rights trilogy, “America in the Royal Years.” The first book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63,” won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1989; it was followed by the volumes “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65” and “At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Year’s, 1965-68”. A chronicler of current and past injustices, Branch’s 2011 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” sparked a debate about the NCAA’s control over student-athletes that continues to burn.
  • Fred Smith (or, more formally, Frederick W. Smith), founder and executive chairman of FedEx. A longtime supporter of the National Civil Rights Museum and similar institutions, Smith and FedEx have also launched programs in support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and “influenced millions of contributions to advance inclusion, strengthen economic opportunity and encourage learning and leadership for nonprofit organizations,” according to the museum.
  • Isabelle Wilkerson, author of two best-selling books over the past 12 years, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which examines racism and social stratification. As Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, in 1994 she became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, for her reporting.

Also being honored at the Freedom Awards will be Memphis-born Jeffery Robinson, a longtime ACLU executive whose work on racial justice and education inspired the 2022 documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” currently on Netflix. Segments of the documentary were filmed at the museum.

January 18, 2019 - Jeff Robinson, ACLU Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Throne Center for Justice and Equality, stands outside the National Civil Rights Museum while filming part of

Billed by the museum as “one of the nation’s most prestigious events,” the Freedom Award has been presented to nearly 100 winners over the past three decades. Some of the recipients include Coretta Scott King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Lech Walesa, Sidney Poitier, Stevie Wonder, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and at least three such famous people – Bono, Oprah and Usher – they don’t need last names.

In 2018, future President Joe Biden was one of the winners, while Michelle Obama was among last year’s winners.

Russell Wigginton, outside the National Civil Rights Museum (built from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968).

Tickets will go on sale September 1. Tickets start at $100, with proceeds going to the museum.

The main sponsors of this year’s Freedom Awards are International Paper, FedEx, Nike, the Hyde Family Foundation and the Ford Motor Company.

The host, for the fourth time, will be actor and activist Lamman Rucker. The Freedom Award Gala will begin at 5:30 p.m. on October 20 at the Halloran Center and the ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. at the Orpheum Theater adjacent to 203 S. Main.

For more information, visit civilrightsmuseum.org.

John Beifuss covers current affairs, reporting and pop culture. He can be contacted at [email protected]