The Troubled Birth of the National Civil Rights Museum
Honorable D'Army Bailey, BAR contributing editor
"A pattern of corporate financial control of
our civil rights institutions and heritage have become all too familiar."
The Honorable Judge
D'Army Bailey of Memphis, Tennessee had a vision for a museum that would be
housed on the spot where Dr. King was assassinated. He envisioned a structure that would symbolically represent the
renewed commitment to the civil and human rights struggle. But in his efforts
to bring the museum from a dream to reality he faced a formidable and intense
struggle of his own. - The Editors.
When I returned to Memphis in 1974 from California, the
Lorraine Motel was a run-down property in a decaying neighborhood located on
the edge of downtown. During the earlier years of racial segregation the
Lorraine was one of the most prominent local hotels for black travelers. But
this changed once racial integration opened white hotels in the city to blacks
and the motel began to decline. In the six years since Dr. King had been
assassinated on the motel's balcony the local black community, the white
business establishment and the political leadership had done nothing meaningful
to rehabilitate the property, or to present a dignified tribute to the memory
of Dr. Martin L. King. The owner of the property, Walter L. Bailey, a black
businessman whose wife had a stroke the night of the assassination and died two
days later, was struggling to keep the doors of the motel open. Coincidentally,
he and my father were both named Walter L. Bailey and though we are not
related, some people have always thought, even to this day, that my family
owned the Lorraine Motel.
"The owner of the property was struggling to keep the doors of the Lorraine Motel open.
fortuitous that I met Mr. Bailey by chance in the late 70's and talked with him
about the status of the motel. He kept a small shrine honoring Dr. King and his
own wife in the room that had been last occupied by Dr. King. Of the three buildings
that comprised the motel, two were closed and the third was providing the only
business income. Bailey had about eight to ten weekly tenants living in the
motel, and much of the rest of his income came from prostitutes who solicited
openly on the street in front of the building and used the motel for their
and I became friends, and, since he had not been successful in generating any
support toward salvaging the site, he paid me a nominal fee to form a nonprofit
corporation that he hoped would raise money to create a more appropriate shrine
in honor of Dr. King and his work on behalf of civil rights. I approached some
local white business leaders to encourage their investment in the property but
after some meetings they declined.
In April of 1982, Harry Sauer, the man who held the
mortgage on the property, began foreclosure proceedings against the Lorraine.
Alerted to this by news reports, a local black radio station launched a fund
drive for donations to save the motel. The station had just completed a
successful fund drive, raising over one-hundred thousand dollars for a nearby
black town, Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and this undertaking was another venture
in keeping with the station's commitment to supporting the black community.
"A local black radio station launched a fund drive for
donations to save the motel."
The manager of that station, Charles Scruggs, personally
guaranteed a ten thousand dollar bank loan as earnest money on a contract he
signed with Bailey to buy the motel for over two hundred thousand dollars.
Bailey asked Scruggs to contact me to enlist my support for the project since I
was in the process of forming the nonprofit corporation. When we met Scruggs
assured me that the station could raise the money beginning with a major
concert in Mound Bayou featuring Stevie Wonder. With that assurance I
volunteered as attorney, and incorporated a five-member group, the Martin
Luther King Memphis Memorial Foundation. We launched a well-publicized local
fund raising campaign centered on the Stevie Wonder concert. I soon learned
that, to my disappointment, no prior contact had been made with Stevie Wonder's
people and it would take tens of thousands of dollars (more than we had raised
to that point!) in up-front money to get Stevie for a charitable appearance.
Nevertheless, the Lorraine concert went on with the Bar-Kays and other local
was poorly planned, and hundreds of people, not having bought tickets, simply
came through unfenced fields onto the farm grounds where the concert was held.
No money was raised, though the radio station did contribute seven thousand
dollars from its own charity fund.
faith in the radio station's fund-raising ability brought me into the project,
I quickly knew that to succeed I would have to assume leadership of the
project. I became president of the Foundation shortly after the failed concert
and from then on I led the fund-raising campaign by appealing to the public on
the radio station, through other local media and with several appearances on
Bob Law's Night Talk syndicated radio program.
"I quickly knew that to succeed I would have to assume
leadership of the project."
We were only able to raise fifty-five thousand dollars
plus an additional ten thousand I solicited from a sympathetic white friend.
The purchase contract subsequently fell through and, after seven months of hard
work, the foreclosure sale was set for December 12, 1982.
before the sale I had never felt so dejected. The minimum owed on the mortgage
was in excess of one hundred fifty thousand dollars and we had no way of
getting the money to ward off foreclosure. I went to the Courthouse steps for
the noon auction. Local 1733 of AFSCME, the Union Dr. King had been helping in
Memphis, showed up thirty minutes before the auction with a promised donation
of twenty-five thousand dollars. And then miracle of miracles! My friend who
had donated the ten thousand dollars and the AFSCME Union each guaranteed a
loan for fifty thousand dollars that was approved by the local black bank
president, on the Courthouse steps, thus giving us a total of one hundred forty
thousand dollars when the bidding began.
interest in this project stemmed from my own civil rights history. I was
expelled from Southern University in Baton Rouge in 1962, while participating
with other students in protest demonstrations against both segregation and
the black administrators who were expelling students active in the movement. As
one of the leaders of the Baton Rouge protest, I traveled to Atlanta for
meetings with Jim Foreman, John Lewis, Julian Bond and other SNCC leaders.
After losing a semester at Southern, I continued my undergraduate education at
Clark University in Massachusetts and received my law degree from Yale Law
School in 1967. During those intervening years, I maintained active involvement
in civil rights protests in Massachusetts, Louisiana and Mississippi, and
participated in community organizing in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1963.
These experiences and exposure to great leaders like James Baldwin, Ella Baker,
Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X (who I brought to speak on Clark's campus in
Massachusetts) had a great impact on me. I knew the harsh challenges and the
great courage of the struggle. It was very clear that the message and spirit of
that struggle could be passed on through an exhibition at the site of Dr.
King's murder, the Lorraine Motel.
I bid for
our organization and kept bidding, even at one-hundred forty thousand dollars,
but in small increments, hoping that Sauer's bidder would see our desperate
situation and yield because I did not think they really wanted to own the
motel. I went up to one hundred forty four thousand dollars and said that was
my last bid. The gavel fell and our nonprofit group became the owner of the
"The message and spirit of that struggle could be passed on
through an exhibition at the site of Dr. King's murder, the Lorraine Motel."
I contacted a local white businessman who raised four thousand dollars to bring
our total up to the bid amount, and two or three of us went to the auction
house the next day with a cashier's check. Initially there were five of us -
Scruggs and two other officials of WDIA Radio station, the president of the
black bank, and me. Because we believed Bailey was a decent man we asked him to
continue operating the Lorraine until we could figure out a plan of action. The
agreement was that he could keep all of the money he made at the motel and we
only asked that he keep the openness of the prostitutes' solicitation discreet
and at a minimum.
the Foundation had acquired ownership of the motel it was time for future
planning. I enlisted architectural friends to brainstorm with us to create the
concept and model of this civil rights exhibition. We presented that model in
1984 to city and county government leaders who agreed to contribute fifty
thousand dollars. They also assigned staff assistance from a quasi government
agency to assist the Foundation. We hired a premier museum consultant, Ben
Lawless, formerly with the Smithsonian, who divinely captured the spirit of
what we wanted to create.
initial design required 8.8 million dollars in funding but neither the city nor
county would donate any additional funds. To give our effort a broader appeal,
we expanded our Board of Directors to include local civil rights leaders and
ministers. Though they agreed to serve, most of them never came to board
meetings; this, however, gave me an opportunity to make decisions as the
W. Willis, the first black state legislator in Tennessee, was the most
consistent and valuable source of advice and encouragement as I struggled
along. With his help, we went to the State Legislature and after weeks of
intensive lobbying, got approval of 4.4 million dollars toward the project.
This came in no small part because we pulled a unanimous body of black
legislators together who got behind our effort. That support was the impetus
that white lawmakers needed to become involved also. Sadly, during that time
Willis became seriously ill and died soon after.
and county governments matched the state money but did not want any ownership
in the project. Thus, I signed over the title to the Lorraine to the state
government and the city contributed their money to what would be Memphis' only
state-owned museum. The state agreed to build and design the museum without
changing the story or concept as we had created it.
of this time the Foundation was housed in my law office with my secretary
providing the only secretarial support.
"Most of the local civil rights leaders and ministers
never came to board meetings."
next twelve months I traveled to Nashville for meetings with the state and private
architects, museum consultants, and black historians Spencer Crew and Jim
Horton. I was uncompromising in insisting that the museum maintain and express
the spirit and integrity of a courageous black people's struggle.
By the end
of 1988, our planning was complete, contractors and exhibit builders were
hired, adjacent land was acquired and the Lorraine was closed for the
development phase. By now board members had begun coming to board meetings and
were questioning the project design and content, wanting input and pushing for
new organization bylaws governing board elections and meeting schedules - all
aimed at nullifying what they saw as my "control" of the project. The meetings
were very contentious and often broke up in disarray, which slowed down the
grasp for control by several of the board members. Pitt Hyde, a white
conservative millionaire who I had brought on board to finance the work of art
in the museum lobby, soon allied himself with some of my black critics on the
board. As these battles on the Board unfolded, I continued working with the
project group in Nashville.
By July 4,
1991 the museum was finished and ready for opening. Though Mike Fitts, the
state architect and project coordinator, had chosen the July 4th
date as the earliest possible time to open, I was criticized at the Memphis
board meetings because members felt that we should not open on July 4th
because that date honored America's racist past. I had no problem with the date
and, looking back, that date should have been seen as a ironic, given that
black Americans had contributed to the struggle for American independence yet
still had to fight for their own independence in this country. My vision for
the museum was that the physical exhibition on the movement would be just the
beginning. A whole generation of blacks had no exposure to the spirit and
strength of the civil rights movement. This museum was to serve as the spark to
ignite in today's young the same boldness, brashness and strategic wisdom to
launch new movements which would carry on the struggle for freedom and
independence. In assembling the giants of the civil rights struggle in Memphis
in July of 1991 for the museum's opening, it was my hope to blend the museum
exhibition, and tested civil rights activists, into a new foundation for a
movement among our young.
"I was uncompromising in insisting that the museum
maintain and express the spirit and integrity of a courageous black people's
Maya Angelou, was among those who agreed to serve on an expanded Museum Board
of National Civil Rights supporters. The next phase would be to establish
regular planning meetings, youth coordination and information exchanges, and
strategic initiatives to help carry out the unfinished business of the civil
rights movement, utilizing the expanded group for support, encouragement,
inspiration and financial backing.
the end of 1991, an alliance of whites on the board and some blacks, forced new
board elections. On the day of the election, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, who had been
on the board for ten years but had never been to a meeting, told me, when asked
about plans for my ouster, that he knew nothing about any plans to vote me out
as president. But the events at the board meeting told a different story; one member
presented a letter from Dr. Hooks stating his willingness to accept the
position as president if I were ousted in the new election. That being said,
Hooks was elected board president in a nine-to-six vote.
At the same
time Hyde was elected the Chair of the museum's Executive Committee that was to
meet monthly while the board (over which Hooks presided) would meet quarterly.
They also voted for me to serve on the Executive Committee but I resigned that
evening, reading from a prepared statement. My departure paved the way for
Hyde's ascendancy to the helm of the museum's leadership and he has largely
controlled the museum since that time.
board later voted to name me President Emeritus and I was asked to come to one
of their banquets for recognition. I declined.
The Tennessee State Government, which owns the museum,
did officially recognize me as "Founder" of the museum, written at
the top of a bronze plaque at the museum's entrance. The Museum's Board
protested and asked the State to rescind the honor. The Tennessee State
Building Commission rejected the protest. Former State Senator John Ford
reported that Hyde has vowed he will one day get my name off the building.
The museum has given away hundreds of thousands of
dollars in "Freedom Awards" at stellar black tie banquets.
Hooks, and Maxine Smith, the former local NAACP Executive Secretary who helped
engineer his election to replace me, have each received twenty-five thousand
dollars of these awards. At the same time many of the fine exhibits at the
museum have at times lingered in disrepair. These include display cases where
interior placards have fallen down and lean against the exterior glass, the
Freedom Song exhibit, and the exhibit of Meredith racial crisis
conversations between President Kennedy and the Mississippi Governor, which,
during my last visit, were inoperable.
"Dr. Benjamin Hooks and Maxine Smith, the former local
NAACP Executive Secretary who helped engineer Hooks' election to replace me,
have each received twenty-five thousand dollars in museum "Freedom Awards"
Nearly all of the blacks on the board who fought against
me have since been replaced by an assortment of blacks from local corporations
and churches, and whites with close associations to Hyde.
Hyde, the Executive Committee's chair for over a decade, was founder and
chairman of the AutoZone Corporation until 1997. That company is now in a
multi-year long battle with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In it's original suit against Hyde's Autozone the anti-discrimination
June 1, 1993 to May 31, 1995, [Autozone] had at least 59 vacant positions
filled in the official/manager category...none were filled
by Blacks; During that same time period, qualified Blacks applied
for official/manager positions; that they were qualified for those jobs; that
they were not hired; that White males were selected although Black applicants
had superior qualifications."
loomed large in the Memphis public eye as the museum's primary benefactor and
is central to raising and providing most of the money for the museum's
operations. As a result the museum has not had to launch any significant
appeals to the black community, locally or nationally, for ongoing support and
involvement. Recently the black social organization, Links, Inc. has pledged
one million dollars over several years to support a special museum based
program. This reality obscures the fact
that one man, whose past business practices fly in the face of the core
struggle of the civil rights movement, has the biggest influence on the
direction of the National Civil Rights Museum.
this pattern of corporate financial control of our civil rights institutions
and heritage have become all too familiar.
Organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League and others have often
become so dependant on the white businesses they are charged with policing and
being a gadfly against that they have morphed with the corporations and now
depend on them to continue paying the high salaries of their officials, and
more critically for the organizations' very financial existence.
The Honorable Judge D'Army
be contacted at [email protected].