The local controversy about the National Civil Rights Museum is now the equivalent of the Southern California wildfires – sometimes it only takes one person with a grievance to strike a match that ends up threatening what most of the rest of us consider important.

That’s sure been the case here as what was essentially a personal vendetta by a disgruntled former chairman of the National Civil Rights Museum escalated into a wildfire that’s now giving third-degree burns to Memphis’ national image, making us look like a city trapped in a self-loathing, self-destructive time warp as his grievances are picked up hook, line and sinker by national media outlets, most recently, the liberal weekly, The Nation.

In that journal’s screed, nothing was as obvious to us as why we cancelled our subscription years ago. It’s predictable and incendiary and transfixed more by its own cleverness than by being revelatory.

Way Below The Radar

In the magazine’s “beneath the radar” column, the writer tars Memphis with a brush that is distinctly white and racist, apparently failing to notice that we’re about to become the first majority African-American region of more than one million people in the history of the country. Along the way, he lashes out at Beale Street, he mangles the facts about the National Civil Rights Museum and he insistently steers away from anything that contradicts his pre-conceived opinion about the recent controversy.

All in all, it’s a sad commentary on journalism at The Nation, but more to the point, it’s a sad commentary on the personal motivations that seem to blind former museum chair D’Army Bailey from the damage that he’s doing in the process. It’s almost like he’s more comfortable countenancing failure if he’s in charge than supporting success if someone else in charge.

In recent weeks, the venom from this grudge match has grown nastier, with Mr. Bailey even tossing in the EEOC discrimination lawsuits against AutoZone to attack his favorite target – AutoZone founder J.R. Hyde III – while overlooking the seminal fact that Mr. Hyde’s not been running the corporation for years.

The Historical Facts

That essentially is the party line though: corporations equal racism. Of course, any one remotely acquainted with the indicators of success for museums of any kind these days knows that corporate support is absolutely essential. That’s why new African-American heritage museums in other cities have gone to great lengths to consummate corporate tie-ins and sponsorships.

Most incredulous to long-time observers of the National Civil Rights Museum is the fact that Judge Bailey – whom we know and like – was the person who set in motion so many of the things that he now assails. It was Judge Bailey who recruited Mr. Hyde to the board of the museum in the first place. It was Judge Bailey that negotiated the agreements with the state that now seem so abhorrent. It was Judge Bailey that led the development of the foundation structure that he now attacks. It was Judge Bailey who assembled a board in those early years that had about three more African-American members than the board does today (apparently, that will be resolved as soon as the museum can reappoint people to vacant labor, state political and community positions).

This is not to say that the grassroots voices expressing concern about the museum are not sincere and deserve to be heard. From reports we have heard, museum staff – which from the founding days of the museum has been 95 percent African-American – is looking at ways to respond so ties to community leaders are strengthened and renewed.

Today’s Importance

That’s as it should be, because the lessons of the civil rights movement are no less relevant today to residents of neighborhoods who feel excluded from the mainstream of the economy and powerless, even in a city where the elected power structure is predominantly African-American.

But the use of the National Civil Rights Museum as the whipping boy and as corporate leaders as scapegoats runs counter to every thing that the civil rights movement was about. Most troubling to us is that the current campaign of disinformation vilifies the reputations of civil rights legends Dr. Ben Hooks, Rev. Billy Kyles and Mrs. Maxine Smith by accusing them of nothing short of serving as tokens to their corporate masters.

Then again, attending the annual Freedom Awards ceremony, it’s hard to fathom the supposed iron grip that corporations hold over the museum based on the comments by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Dr. John Hope Franklin and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Their heart-felt remarks were authentically honest – and clearly unconcerned about soothing the consciences of corporations – about the challenges facing black Americans and the shortcomings of corporations and political parties in addressing them.

The Real Legacy

It’s equally hard for any one who’s talked to the local civil rights giants to harbor the notion that they are taking orders from anyone. Since Judge Bailey, as chair of the museum, was the first person to suggest greater corporate involvement and sought out the first corporate funding, it would seem that the corporate support for the museum is the fulfillment of his founding vision and a testament to the museum’s broad appeal.

That’s what’s most curious of all. It was Judge Bailey that laid the foundation for the structure, the operations and the state-local relationship during the early years of the Museum, and it’s hard to understand why he doesn’t embrace its success today as his greatest legacy. Instead, he’s done just the opposite, engaging in a revisionist history that does his own legacy at the museum a disservice.

In his zeal to attack the thing that he once loved so deeply, he portrays – and The Nation agrees – the current board members are examples of the adroit maneuvers of white supremacists and the vast right wing conspiracy to keep African-Americans oppressed. It’s less clear why with all the things that corporations and wealthy individuals could take over, they chose the museum, but no matter.

A Solution That Solves Nothing

Just for the record, the magazine says African-Americans are a minority on the board, and the magazine is right although it fails to mention that it’s right by 1 percent. African-American membership is 49 percent, white membership is 45 percent, and other makes up the difference. Actually, the makeup of the board isn’t too drastically different than it was in the early years of the museum, and with the filling of the vacant posts, it should reach those levels.

All of this is apparently a prelude to the vote by the Memphis City Council on a resolution calling for the National Civil Rights Museum to become a city government-run museum and for talks to begin with the U.S. National Parks Service to take over the museum in the long-term. If city ownership and operation are the answers, we’re simply asking the wrong questions.

Last time we checked the city budget, the museums in Victorian Village had been shut down for lack of money, the Pink Palace Museum’s exhibits have been largely unchanged in 30 years despite revolutions in technology and exhibitry and all city museums had maintenance issues that need serious attention. Before city government looks to take over a successfully run museum whose budget is about $1.3 million more than the Pink Palace, Memphis City Council should fully fund its own museums specifically and invest more heavily in quality of life generally.

Voting No

Interesting, either city or county governments had the opportunity to take ownership of the museum when it was founded, but both quickly and emphatically said no.

In his speech to the Memphis Regional Chamber last week, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton appeared incredulous about the entire controversy but came down on the side of not tinkering with a formula that’s working at the civil rights museum. Hopefully, the City Council will vote down the resolution and let the National Civil Rights Museum get back to the business of kicking off a capital campaign to upgrade the exhibits and update the technology of the museum to make sure it remains what USA Today called one of 10 national treasures.