Gap Year: NCRM’s 2017 Freedom Awards

This year marks 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis. Every year the National Civil Rights Museum hosts a Freedom Award Show Gala to acknowledge the hard work of other leaders and performers. About a week ago, I was invited to be apart of the crew backstage and my answer was “what time do I need to be there and what should I wear?”

This post will highlight 5 wow moments that I experienced during the preparation and run of the event.

First, The Orpheum Theatre:

The current structure was originally built in the late 1920s on the corner of Main and Beale Street. Over the years, it has become known as one of the hot spots in the mid-south for the performing arts. It has hosted numerous broad way shows, performers/ entertainer, concerts, and local events here in Memphis. It is huge and the aesthetic is fit for royalty.

Although I had been to a couple of plays and acts there, I’d never been close enough to touch the stage, let alone check out the signatures along the bricks toward the back. The combination of the grand interior design, the clout of how many talented artist graced its stage, and the history of this place was enough to have me fan girl (from the inside of course).

Second, Red Carpet Gala:

Something I had never seen before, which was really cute, the crew had blocked of main street and built a red carpet! Even though it usually gets really chilly in October, that night was warm, clear skies, and great lighting for the glamourous outfits swarming main street. Side Note- I’d also like to mention how much melanin was poppin’ on that red carpet. There was a great mix on people whether of color or non-color, but it was awesome seeing African American men and women in clean suits and breathe taking gowns.

I’ll be honest, while I’m not the best at picking out famous faces, everyone looked like celebrities to me. Right next to the Orpheum, we watched these beautiful people crowd the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education for live music, tasty reception food, and social house drinks. The personal touches really brought out that classic, ageless soul of Memphis that we all know too well in the Bluff City.

Third, A plus list:

So in addition to the talented dance number from New Ballet Ensemble, harmonicist Frederic Yonnet, spoken word artist Ed Mabrey, and the house band directed by Garry Goin, the presenters and honorees added more sparkle to the stage and food for thought to the listeners. The three individuals presented with awards during this event were Reverend Dr. Bernice King, Morris Dees, and Hugh Masekela.

Watching the videos, listening to the speeches, and being in such close proximity to movers and shakers in the civil rights movement left me speechless. It was like being in a room with people who were too cool for school, like I definitely didn’t think that I was awesome enough to be on a first name bases with these people.

My worst moment of word vomit was awkwardly standing next to five Sanitation Workers from the 1968 “I am a Man” rally. Like how do you express in less than 60 seconds how appreciative you are for their sacrifice, bravery, and vulnerability. Many of which would say, don’t thank me because it was the right thing to do. I walk around talking about being about “the cause” and I’m interacting with the people who put “the cause” into words, images, and ideas that (at that time) were dangerous to share. There were many other motivational and influential people backstage-which I regret to say that I was too nervous and not confident enough to ask questions- whom I did not mention here. Some of these people were even familiar with Berea College (my alma mater). It was a great night.

Fourth, Rev. Dr. Bernice King’s Speech:

So you all knew this was coming. You may have listened to recordings or read quotes from her speech, but I’m just going to expand on a point she made that resonated with me. While I did not have time or free hands to write the words down, I repeated it in my head until I could recount it in my own words. Rev. Dr. Bernice King said (and I’m totally paraphrasing) that our responsibility as human beings in this current society is to not leave others in darkness, hate, and ignorance. One of her goals, which she believes is our responsibility, is to be the light in that darkness, love in that hatred, and impart knowledge in ignorance. It is to choose to not leave the table without planting a seed within them.

Regardless of your background or spirituality, this directly complements the Golden Rule: threat others the way you want to be treated. So instead of fighting with fire, tears, sweat, and blood, try laughter, empathy, respect, and love. I think that in the Trump era, some people see current events as brand new; however, none of this has been hidden. People often forget to consider context and assume that those strange occurrences “came out of the blue.” I repeat: This year marks only 50 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years since minorities in the United States of America were desperately and tirelessly demanding for what was right. Those words aren’t even strong enough to communicate the fact that these people were striving for what I think is common sense and humanism…but if college taught me nothing else, it is that common sense just ain’t so common. We see black and white photos and imagine that 50 years ago is so removed from today.

We have allowed ourselves to take those traumatic, tense, and violent events out of context. 50 years ago isn’t old enough to retire. 50 years ago is an aunt, uncle, mother, father, or grandparent. 50 years ago may be half a century, but it is still alive and well in most households today. 50 years ago, in context, is no more than 2 generations from me writing this blog post. These people who are living and breathing within our homes and communities saw those black and white photos in color and experienced that which we have removed ourselves from. So when you see white sheets, mobs, delayed relief efforts, dehumanization of people of color, lack of interest in communities which still do not have clean sources of water, hear the whispers in the wind, feel the chill of an unwelcome place you wandered into, and see something surprising in the news…just remember that it was only 50 years. Just remember that it started well before that. Just remember that our past, present, and future will always be occurring at the same time and nothing just “comes out of the blue.” Ask for the context and none of this will have come as a surprise to you.

Finally, The 1968 Sanitation Workers:

I held the medals presented to the men who said enough was enough. I held the hands of men who wanted better working conditions, higher wages, and union recognition. I saw men who simply wanted better for themselves, their co-workers, and their families. I saw men who were engaged within their communities, fighting for economic and social justice. I met men who probably didn’t think that the medals were necessary because they had added light to darkness and thoughts to a much larger conversation.

Overall, it was a great night. I made some good friends and great networks. I learned that I need to learn more about our history and that there are meaningful conversations happening all around you. I learned this when I was struggling to match faces with names and being invited to this event. This learning matters because I like to think that I know everything sometimes, but now I know another growth area for myself. In light of this learning, I have been sharing this experience with younger students in Memphis through my work at BRIDGES USA, Inc.

Best,

Cayla Jae

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