After the month we've had here in Memphis and Shelby County, with raging debates as to the future of our civic monuments, with a city election heating up that may well determine the shape of our future, and,
finally, with D'Army Bailey, one of our certified local heroes, being laid to rest with a eulogy from the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton, it was wholly appropriate that we should hear a prognosis from Terri Freeman.
Some will wonder: Who is Terri Freeman? She may not be a household name yet, but she will be — the newest president of the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM), succeeding such legends as Bailey, Benjamin Hooks, and Beverly Robertson. The last of Freeman's household furnishings arrived Tuesday, the very day she addressed members of the Memphis Rotary Club with her review of the museum's past and her vision of its — and our — future.
Freeman, whose most recent job was that of president of the Community Foundation in the D.C. area, is a veteran of capital campaign drives, but, as she pointed out on Tuesday, the NCRM's most recent capital campaign had been completed just as she arrived. So, with a newly renovated facility at her disposal and what would appear to be a sufficient annual budget ($6 million, most of it raised from private donations), her main task would seem to be that of articulating the vision alluded to above and executing it.
And what a vision — one aspect of which is downright mind-boggling, considering what most people's ideas of civil rights are (i.e., a struggle for human rights that took place roughly 25 to 50 years ago) and what their idea of a museum is (i.e., a place where memories and artifacts of the past are stored for inspection and inspiration).
To be sure, Freeman did not neglect the function of the National Civil Rights Museum as either a place to celebrate history or one to gather instructive and revealing exhibits. Neither duty will be shunted. But what is most thrilling about the prospectus for the NCRM that Freeman revealed was her idea for the kinds of programs that should be featured by the NCRM, which, as she envisions it, will invite the discussion of "difficult questions in a safe space."
As she spelled out the formula, it was: "No agenda. No right. No wrong. Just a place for dialogue."
Just imagine that formula being applied to subjects ranging from, say, the currently vexing queston of civic monuments or economic strategies that might make demands of our local power structure or schools and taxes or whatever other problems are currently confounding us.
It's very close to what the ancient Greeks strived to do in their public forums (sometimes at great risk, as we recall the fate of Socrates), and it is an idea that evokes the very purposes of a democracy. Bring it on, Terri Freeman, and welcome to Memphis!