Terri Freeman, the outgoing president of the National Civil Rights Museum, stands for a portrait outside the museum on Oct. 30, 2020. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a deity — he was a man.

That’s the message Terri Freeman, outgoing president for the National Civil Rights Museum based at the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated, emphasized in an exit interview earlier this month. Her six-year tenure ends Feb. 3. 

“He got frustrated if he got angry, and he was sad and he was scared,” Freeman said. “All these emotions that every human being has, he had as well.”

And he wasn’t just a dreamer, she adds, referencing his most famous and oft-quoted speech.

“King was far more tangible,” she said. “He was far more action-oriented than what dreaming suggests.”

Freeman has welcomed the museum’s place in the local movement for Black lives, which has gained traction during her time at the helm. In 2014, she moved to Memphis from the Washington area, as the Black Lives Matter movement was picking up in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the first demonstrations held in the museum’s courtyard after she started was a December 2014 die-in organized by now Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

And during Freeman’s last summer in Memphis, the nation was gripped by racial justice protests following the police killings of George Floyd, who was Black, and Breonna Taylor, who was also Black. Memphis had its share of related protests too, some of which used the museum’s courtyard as a staging ground. 

About 400 people gathered outside the National Civil Rights Museum for a civil disobedience training organized by a coalition of activists and organizations on June 4, 2020. The training came in response to the days of spontaneous protests following the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Photo by Johnathan Martin for MLK50.

“This past spring and summer, it was one of the best places for people to get some type of grounding in either preparation for or ending a march,” she said. “It has the weight of the place, the weight of standing in that courtyard, close to that balcony. There is some energy that comes from that.” During her time at the museum, Freeman said the budget grew from around $5 million to $9 million in the year prior to the pandemic. Attendance also soared, largely due to the museum’s renovations, which began under its prior and first president, Beverly Robertson. 

Freeman led the museum’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. She also speaks proudly of the “Unpacking Racism for Action” virtual dialogue series launched in the aftermath of the past summer’s protests. 

But the past year has been a difficult one. Last January, a car accident left her unable to walk for several weeks. Her mother, who moved with her to Memphis, recently died after a long illness. Her husband had remained in the D.C. area where he pastored a church and it’s to that area she will return as executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. 

I wanted to hear Freeman’s reflections on her tenure, accomplishments and the work King left behind for us to take up. 

Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity. 

Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism: Since you’ve been at the museum, has it taken more public stances? I’m thinking about the statement that went out the day after the insurrection in DC. It was fairly pointed.

Terri Freeman, National Civil Rights Museum: There’s a balance that has to be put into play at the museum because we are apolitical, but we stand on the side of right. So to me, [the insurrection] is pretty out there. They’re pretty blatant. And there were no kind of nice words that you could put around what happened.

I always wanted this place to recognize the power that it has because of what it represents and who it represents. A goal has always been to help people better understand who King was. Yes, he loved peace, but it was peace for justice. He recognized that justice was hard to win. And that it was one of those heights that we would have to be in for quite some time. 

Dr. Bernice King listens as National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman speaks during a press conference at the museum on April 2, 2018, ahead of the 50th year commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

In 2018,  the museum commissioned a report from Dr. Elena Delavega that highlighted persistent disparities over the course of 50 to 60 years in Memphis.  What do you think it will take to erase those disparities?

Oh, well, it’s going to take some dedicated effort and some real investment. And I think the investment is on the part of the three sectors, public sector, for-profit sector, and the nonprofit sector working in concert.

I think that working in a collaborative manner to benefit community is always going to yield you a better outcome than trying to create a solution in a vacuum. 

Is there some incident or some issue that you feel like represents this?

Well, I think the whole transportation issue is one that could really benefit from a three-sector approach.

Being raised in Chicago, and then a part in Detroit and then in D.C., people go into a couple of places (to catch mass transit) to go work, right? (The city) is a little bit more dispersed here, but that is almost more reason why you need a good public transportation system.

This was before Uber and Lyft and all of these other entities, but I had an idea of employee-owned transportation co-ops… Your overhead would be the purchase of some vans or minibuses or whatever and training people so that they are certified appropriately to be able to drive people around…. It is a co-op, which means that the shares from the company go to the people who are working, so you’re also building wealth. You’re creating the opportunity for multi-generational benefit when kids see mom and dad are owners in something. 

So what are you most proud of?

(The 2018) MLK50 (anniversary commemoration) was a highlight. I don’t think that I would’ve ever thought that I would have been involved in something that large. I don’t take credit solely for what we were able to do.

I mean, you were integral to this just coming up with (the name) “MLK50” and allowing us to use that as the overarching title for the event. The symposium that we did was really important to me, to look at those themes that King wrote about in “Where Do We Go From Here?” And not just look at this as 50 years ago, but to look at 50 years ago and here we are today.

I did get some pushback from folks on the content with people who thought it should be focused on King and the past. They thought it wasn’t as positive. It wasn’t as uplifting. And that was never the goal. The goal was to present a way for us to commemorate the event that occurred, but recognize that King didn’t want us to get lost in that moment, right? He would want us to move forward. 

(From left)  Rev. Jesse Jackson, Terri Freeman and Rev. Michael Pflegler place a new wreath on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 2018, during a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

What will you miss most about the job that you have now?

The gravity of the place… what the place recognizes, what the place represents (as visitors stand) in that courtyard. I still get awestruck when I stand in the courtyard and look up at the balcony. That is not anything that you can replicate. So I think that I will definitely miss that, but the overarching thing is just the people. The staff at the museum is fabulous.

During the MLK50 commemoration events, I asked you how much the museum workers are getting paid. What’s the lowest salary now?

I think the lowest salary, as a starting salary, is just under $15. It’s like $14.40 or something like that, and within a year’s time, it’s over $15 an hour. Most of the folks there now have been there for a while, so we don’t really have anybody who hasn’t been there for well over a year.

I’ve read in other news reports that one of the reasons you’re going back to the D.C. area is your husband was still there and the long-distance marriage was a challenge.

For five years, it has been stressful, but we have made it work. 

I’m really transparent when it comes to family. Most people who knew me had met my mom as well. She volunteered at the museum in the retail shop three days a week for as many years as she was here. And with the accident, COVID, my mom’s illness, my mom’s passing, it was just, “Okay, I need to be in a space and place with this person who is the closest to me.” And it just so happened that at the same time we were coming to this conclusion, this job presented itself.

 At the “Legacy Remembered” exhibit, a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. peeks out from behind National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman, who is leading former Attorney General Eric Holder on a tour. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Do you have a favorite King quote?

I don’t know that I have a favorite King quote, but I definitely have a favorite King writing. And that is the “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” because, frankly, it speaks to those who thought they were allies, but who basically said, “Wait a minute now, we’re going to get to that but not yet.” As he says in that writing, “‘Not yet’ always meant ‘no.’”

To me, it’s so practical, especially right now. People get caught up being down for the cause (but do they) understand what that really means?

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