MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - No Freedom Awards gala this year because of COVID-19. Instead, the National Civil Rights Museum hosted a virtual tribute on Friday, Dec. 11, looking back at the previous 28 ceremonies and award winners.
Since 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum has given out 97 Freedom Awards to famous names and not so famous names. All of them are agents of change determined to make our world a better place.
Rosa Parks was one of the first recipients in 1991. Bishop Desmond Tutu was recognized the following year.
“When we say we are fighting for freedom,” Tutu said while accepting his award, “it is not just freedom for black people, it is freedom for all of us.”
Nelson Mandela was another notable winner in 2000.
“Our freedom cannot be complete while others in the world are not free,” he told the crowd in attendance at the Freedom Awards that year.
The Dalai Lama told 2009 gala attendees, “No matter how much the obstacle or the struggle, you must struggle for right, and for freedom.”
The late Congressman John Lewis recited his famous quote at the 2004 ceremony:
“It was good trouble. It was necessary trouble,” he said, “And I wasn’t the only one getting into trouble.”
The National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award recipients are a who’s who of history makers seeking justice and equality.
“For the past 28 years, we have brought civil and human rights heroes and sheroes to Memphis, Tennessee,” said museum president Terri Freeman, “to highlight their courage, patience, commitment, and persistence in fighting for, encouraging, and creating positive social change.”
When Oprah came to Memphis to accept her Freedom Award, she was visibly moved by her visit to the museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated saying, “I consider it a gift to be in the place where Dr. King’s spirit ascended from.”
And director Ava DuVernay said of her trip to the Bluff City, “It’s been one of the most beautifully organized experiences I’ve had. Really, you guys do it really nice here in Memphis, I really like it.”
The daylong event usually includes a student forum and the museum gives out the “Keeper of the Dream” award to deserving youth.
Magic Johnson told the participants of one student forum, “Young people, make sure you dream big!”
There was no forum, and no red carpet this year. Great memories were shared instead. The virtual tribute was an impressive look back at award winners like President Bill Clinton, President Jimmy Carter, Rev. Jesse Jackson, John Legend, Hafsat Abiola, Gloria Steinem, and President-Elect Joe Biden who won a Freedom Award in 2018.
“Don’t tell me we can’t restore hope in this country,” he said during his acceptance speech.
The NCRM’s retrospective offered that hope through the words of its Freedom Award winners.
“You don’t have to be on the front lines,” said activist and Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland when she won in 2015, “but you do have to do something to make the world a better place.
The gala is the largest fundraiser for the museum. But when officials announced the event was canceled, 41 sponsors stepped up and contributed $725,000 to help the museum continue its mission, promoting the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior.
Freedom Award recipient, humanitarian and former Mississippi Governor William Winter described the National Civil Rights Museum as a “special shrine that gives us a call to duty.”
Museum officials said you can expect the 30th annual Freedom Awards in 2021 to be something special.