The organization has come under fire from critics in recent months, who have demonstrated outside the museum and pressured the board to add more members with a background in the civil rights movement. Those critics see this as a crucial moment.
"The struggle for community control of the National Civil Rights Museum has entered a final and most critical phase," began a letter from Judge D'Army Bailey, one of the museum's founders who was ousted from the board's presidency in 1992, sent to supporters on Monday.
"The [museum board] will show whether and how it responds to the pleas of community and national civil rights leaders for more sensitivity and diversity on the governing board of this, black America's holiest and most historical site."
Beverly Robertson, executive director of the museum since 1997 and president of the board, explains that the state of Tennessee mandated an expansion of the board in its lease agreement with the museum. "One of the state's provisions is a 60 percent African-American representation on the board," Robertson says. "Another is to make sure that we have someone that represented labor, a historian or civil rights activist. We need to be able to do that and maintain a balance of people who wish to engage their companies and corporations in helping to advance this mission."
Robertson says that the board assessed the strengths of its current membership to determine what sort of members need to be added. "We need several things," she says. "We need people who represent different perspectives, whether its labor or the grass roots community. We need people who are fund-raisers, and we need educators who can figure out new ways to engage young people and build our programs. We need people with technological backgrounds to reach kids who download, iPod, Tivo, and podcast. If we're not doing those things, then our message isnt resonating. We need young people on the board as well."
"This Lorraine Motel site is important to the world not because of this board, but because it is where King died," Bailey wrote.
He accuses the board of operating secretly, ejecting black legislators from a recent meeting, and minimizing black participation. His letter says that the board rejected a proposal from labor leader Bill Lucy to add eight new members via a joint committee of board members and civil rights veterans. A second community group, the Lorraine Oversight Committee, requested input into the new board nominations as well, while the Arkansas Delta Truth and Justice Center submitted a list of recommended board nominees to the museum board.
Robertson says she welcomes the input from citizens and organizations alike. "Everybody should feel that they have a voice," she says. "I don't think weve been restrictive in the past. Board members reach out to people they know [for new members], but that's typical of every board."
In continuing his running critique of the board as too corporate, Bailey wrote, "During the civil rights movement we had white moneyed support but they weren't making the policy and strategy choices... The corporate and other well-to-do people who currently serve on the Museum Board are needed and welcome to raise money. However this doesn't qualify them to make the judgments on how our black history should be told... ."
Why doesn't he count Ben Hooks or Billy Kyles as civil rights representatives?" Robertson asks. "Maybe in the process of keeping the lights on and the doors open here, we haven't scanned the external environment as much as we needed to. That's not to stay that we don't welcome people volunteering or putting names in the hat. In the long run we'll be better off for it. I find it so interesting that people think we're fighting this. We're not."
The four-member board nominating committee includes First Tennessee Bank executive vice president Herb Hilliard, Tower Ventures chief manager Billy Orgel, philanthropist Lucia Gilliland, and Baptist Hospital senior vice president Greg Duckett. The meeting is open to the public.
Visit memphisflyer.com later this week for a wrap-up of the meeting.
-- Preston Lauterbach