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Tempers Flare in Battle Over Civil Rights Museum

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Although D'Army Bailey himself was the soul of discretion, speaking only to clarify technical points, sympathizers and relatives thundered against would-be privatizers of the National Civil Rights Museum at a public forum Monday night, exalting Museum founder Bailey as a martyr in the process.

At least one African-American state legislator came under attack at the meeting at the Beale St. headquarters of the public workers' union AFSCME, as did such venerable figures in Memphis civil rights history as Maxine Smith and Benjamin Hooks.

After listening to more than an hour's worth of passionate rhetoric in favor of continued state control of the Museum, State Representative Gary Rowe attempted to change the subject to various self-help stratagems that he said were available to members of the Memphis African-American community.

Rowe cited as an example some $30,000 raised by his own Black United Fund of Tennessee and went on to say, "I'm willing to put my money on the table." Speaking generically of the Tennessee General Assembly and state government at large, Rowe said, "They don't respect us because we're always asking something. We're always begging."

Rowe then left the meeting and the building and, though his ears may well have been burning, was spared direct knowledge of the volatile reaction to his words.

State Representative Joe Towns, who moderated Monday night's meeting, took issue with Rowe's sentiments, reminding members of the audience they were taxpayers and saying, "You don't have to beg for your dollars."

That was just a warm-up for some of the firebrand rhetoric to come. Local radio personality Harold "The Navigator" Moore launched into a philippic against board members of the The Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation for wanting to exercise its option to buy the property, now that $5 million in state construction bonds have been paid off.

Board members, who can purchase the facility from the state for $1, have indicated they would run it afterward largely on corporate and private donations.

Dismissing the current Board as "honchoes, black and white" whose primary loyalty was to corporations, not "the people," Moore said he had marched with Dr. King just before his 1968 assassination at the Lorraine Hotel and went on to say: "I was there when D'Army Bailey was assassinated as chairman of the Civil Rights Museum."

That reference was to a rebellion by a Board majority against Bailey, deposing him as chairman not long after the Museum was opened to much national fanfare in 1991. The Rev. Hooks took his place after the coup which Circuit Court Judge Bailey and many others attributed to influential Board member Pitt Hyde, owner of AutoZone.

Rising to speak in Moore's wake was D'Army Bailey's nephew Jay Bailey, a lawyer active in the burgeoning movement for what he and several other speakers called "community control," as opposed to "corporation control" by the Board.

Jay Bailey escalated the rhetoric further, reciting the names of current Board members and pointedly referring to Smith and Hooks, both former luminaries of the NAACP, as black leaders who had "historically been controlled by corporations." Realizing that he had left out the name of Greg Duckett in his run-through, he then relegated the hospital executive to the same category.

A few speakers later, blogger Thaddeus Matthews ratcheted up the attack even further, seconding Towns' argument that "we don't have to ask anybody" for state favors and saying of Rowe, "He works for us. He should be taking the people's agenda to Nashville."

Matthews said, "If the Lorraine Motel is our Calvary, then we may have to fight for it" against adversaries that include "black folks selling us out." Rowe, he said, was "another sell-out Negro" concerned among other things with protecting the interests of his neighbor, longtime Museum director Beverly Robertson.

A bemused and non-committal spectator through all of this was Dale Sims, Tennessee's state treasurer. Sims attended the meeting in his capacity as member of the state Building Commission, the high-level body that will make a decision whether the Museum should continue to receive state funding or be turned over to the Foundation board.

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