Memphis never seems to have so little energy that it isn’t willing to fight an old battle one more time.

The current archetype for this tendency is taking place at the National Civil Rights Museum, where, 16 years after being ousted, its former chairman of the board is still warring with those in charge of Memphis’ most nationally known museum.

The fact that it is a one-sided war makes it no less of a distraction for the museum at a time when it should to be dealing with its competitive position in light of a proliferation of African-American heritage museums in the U.S.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

While Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey has railed about his rejection as chairman since the 1991 vote, he has a new platform for complaints this year in light of the potential for state government to exercise the option to turn over ownership of the museum to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, whose board has been chaired by civil rights giant Benjamin Hooks since Judge Bailey’s removal.

The foundation has been leasing the museum from the state since groundbreaking for the $8.8 million project in 1987. The museum opened in 1991, and by then, the most dependable facts of life about it were the quality of its exhibits and the rancor that was a regular feature in its board meetings.

In the end, the vote of no confidence for Judge Bailey resulted more from the tone of the meetings and the constant conflict than it did from any fundamental differences of opinion about the future direction of the National Civil Rights Museum.

An Old Conversation

An aspiring actor who’s appeared in several Memphis-based movie productions, Judge Bailey’s script these days suggests that his demise stemmed from a take-over by corporate interests led by local civic leader J.R. Hyde III. Of course, often overlooked in the retelling is the fact that Mr. Hyde only had one vote, and it was a majority of the board that voted to remove Judge Bailey from office.

The vote did nothing to affect Judge Bailey’s board membership, but his immediate resignation from that post eliminated his best platform for have a voice in the life of the museum. Like all of us, Judge Bailey’s strengths are also his weaknesses, and the passion and outspoken opinions that he brings to his civic activities weren’t necessarily the skills needed for an effective board chair.

Repeated today in terms that sound more like control and politics, the complaints by the judge feel more and more stuck in a time warp. In casting the issue as a power struggle for the board, he appeals to populist ideas like reconstituting the board to be dominated by civil rights, labor, African-American legal and legislative members.

Wrong And Wrong

The fact that it’s the wrong question at the wrong time may indicate why it immediately attracted the support of Tennessee Representative Joe Towns Jr., who shares Judge Bailey’s incredulous notion that corporations are dominating decisions about the museum’s future.

The right questions to be asking are the ones facing every African-American heritage museums these days: How do we succeed in an increasingly more competitive world? How do we develop new sources of revenue and get more people to the ticket booth? How do we get into the top tier of museums and attract more corporate and philanthropic support?

It’s as if the critics give the board of directors of the National Civil Rights Museum no credit for the accomplishments over the years: the expansion of the Freedom Awards and the international legends attracted to Memphis to accept it each year, the ability to balance the budget and increase revenues without any state operational funding for 13 years, the designation by USA Today as one of 10 national treasures, one of only three U.S. museums named to the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, one of only three African-American museums accredited by American Association of Museums and the 12,800-foot expansion of the museum in 2002.

In the parlance of the judge, in this case, the burden of proof rests with the complainant. In the context of similar museums, the record of the National Civil Rights Museum is an object of envy. Several African-American heritage museums and sites have shut down, more have revenue shortfalls that have caused cutbacks in staff and services and even more are saddled with debt and declining attendance.

More Cities Taking The Plunge

And yet, more and more cities – most notably Cincinnati with the $110 million Underground Railroad Museum and Louisville’s $75 million Muhammad Ali Center – have opened major black attractions, and even more are planning huge investments in hopes of grabbing a foothold in African-American tourism.

Atlanta has plans for a $100 million, 100,000 square foot civil rights and human rights center (adjacent to Georgia Aquarium) that will house the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bought last year for $32 million by Atlanta leaders; $200 million National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA; $70 million International African-American Museum in Charleston, SC, and the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Even Nashville is getting into the game with a proposal for a Museum of African-American Music, Art and Culture.

In 1991, when the National Civil Rights Museum opened, it was largely thought in Nashville that it would only be a matter of time before the State of Tennessee would be forced to take over operations of the museum because it was assumed that it would be dependent on state funding to stay open.

Surpassing Expectations

And yet, with only nominal financial support for the Museum from state government (no operating funds for the past 13 years and only $1 million in the 2002 expansion), its board and staff have cultivated private, corporate and philanthropic funding for operating costs and capital investments.

The opening of the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the assassination of Dr. King was a major reason for the burst of interest in African-American heritage sites. There’s never been a more competitive environment for the National Civil Rights Museum, and because of it, this continuing controversy about 1991 is about more than political theater. More to the point, it has the potential to divert attention from the real priorities of the museum and to damage its national reputation.

Right now, Memphis needs to step up to develop and implement a plan of action that ratifies and strengthens the past success of the museum and defines it as such a nationally unique place that it stays in the top rungs of the nation’s African-American museums.

The Real Question

Today, newer museums are known for their interactive technology, their digital experience and their up-to-date exhibitry. No one can compete with the National Civil Rights Museum on history. But the staff and board understand that the museum also has to live up to visitors’ expectations, and they’re investigating the best ways to do this.

It’s hard to make the case that the present board hasn’t earned the right to make it happen.