A conversation with Terri Freeman, past president of the National Civil Rights Museum

In April of 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. — in the prime of his powerful activist career — was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His legacy lives on in the incredible diversity of causes now in full-flower across our nation and around the world. We have, as a people, advanced from demanding equality and justice in the form of guaranteed civil rights to seeking a far broader agenda to honor and ensure human rights for everyone.


Howard+Revis is beyond proud that Terri Freeman called us back to the Civil Rights Museum to address a wholesale renovation of the campus, including not only Founders’ Park and the Plaza (where visitors come nearly 24 hours per day to pay homage), but also the cluster of buildings and landscape known as “The Legacy.” H+R waded into concept options and preliminary pricing in the same type of discovery phase undertaken for the original $27M project, which included renovation of the Lorraine Motel, the Plaza, as well as all exhibits and media.


Terri initiated this next much-needed renovation and got her board to — well — get on board! Howard+Revis congratulates Terri on her recent resignation “with full honors” from NCRM and wishes her the best as she moves to her new role heading up the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History in Baltimore.


Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal



What prompted you, as the new President of NCRM, to realize that the rest of your campus needed a makeover in the spirit of the Main Museum?

When I first became President, one of my initial meetings was with Lonnie Bunch, then Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now Secretary of the Smithsonian. His comment to me was that I should take a look at the Boarding House to ensure that the last thing guests experience is what we want them to experience. My other issue was that many of the “Legacy” exhibits were out of date and we wanted the building to truly reflect Dr. King’s legacy. That word in and of itself suggests that the content will continually change to speak to his legacy over time. Given H+R was primarily responsible for the renovation of the Lorraine, it made sense to have you come back and tackle the boarding house.  You were familiar with the structure and would be able to help us draw an interpretive "through-line" between the two buildings.



In our opening dialogue with you, you mentioned MLK’s book Where Do We Go From Here? inspired you to consider anew how his legacy should be presented. Can you share

your thinking?

That book really speaks to the accomplishments of civil rights that were achieved up through 1967, but questions what MLK saw as the increasingly more difficult work of human rights and changing how people “thought” about African Americans, our rights, and what true justice looks like. He was increasingly concerned about the three evils of militarism, capitalism and racism. In particular he focused on issues of economic equity. As we look at the state of our nation today, we know these issues remain paramount. The book is very timely, relevant and forward thinking, and could be a guide for future exhibitions.


You also mentioned how, in the wake of George Floyd and the near-instant emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, that the need to interpret MLK’s legacy became all the more urgent. What experiences told you this was the case? Requests from donors, a shift in priorities by your Board? A new species of visitor response?

So many people see the Museum as a moral authority on issues of social and racial justice as well as civil and human rights. The environment is rife with instances and issues that don’t suggest we’ve learned much over the past half decade. Certainly, the all-too-frequent violence against Black bodies by police, but also the violence of poor housing choices, inadequate education, lack of fresh foods, and environmental injustices impact the need to tell the continuing story of the morphing of the civil rights movement into a Movement for Black Lives.


Current entrance to the Legacy section of the National Civil Rights Museum — a tunnel leading to the Boarding House from which the shots that killed MLK were fired.


Concept level rendering of the same streetscape revealing a wholly new underground space devoted to exhibits focused on MLK's living legacy of activism worldwide.



Learn more about the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel here: https://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/

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