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Let's Talk Human Rights

A Conversation with the Keeper of King’s Legacy

By Katie Schreyer '22

This past spring, HRC student intern Katie Schreyer sat down with University of Dayton Special Achievement Award winner Terri Lee Freeman (UD ‘81) to talk about her career in business, museums and civil rights activism. Freeman is currently the executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore. From 2014 to 2020, she headed the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., located in the former motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. 

Highlights from Terri and Katie’s longer conversation, sponsored by the University of Dayton’s Alumni Association, appear below. 

Katie Schreyer: Welcome Terri. It’s good to meet you. You began your career working in finance and community development, with management roles at Freddie Mac and the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. How did you make the transition from this work to leading one of the nation’s premier civil rights museums?

Terri Freeman: I was at Freddie Mac for 13 years, focusing for the last six of those years on community relations and the corporate foundation. That was my entry into philanthropy. I then worked at the Community Foundation for 18 years, and at the end of that time, I knew I needed to figure out my next step. When the opportunity to work at the National Civil Rights Museum presented itself, it felt as though it would give me the opportunity to take everything that I had learned while making grants and to actualize that work on the ground. The Museum provided a platform for me to talk about issues that were important to the community. It also gave me the chance to invite other people to use that platform to push forward issues of justice and freedom and to promote civil and human rights.

Katie Schreyer: During your time at the National Civil Rights Museum you were sometimes referred to as the keeper of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy. That's a pretty heavy title to carry. Did you ever find it overwhelming?

Terri Freeman: If you've never been to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis I would encourage you to go. It's a trip that everyone should make, and I can guarantee you that you will be changed in some way after you go visit that museum. Walking past that motel balcony every day, you feel the weight of what happened there and you think about the reason why King was in Memphis and what he was fighting for, and that was motivation enough for him to keep on fighting for racial and social justice, for economic equity, for educational equity and to make sure that voting rights are not stolen from people. The people featured on the walls of that museum fought so hard and experienced such terror just trying to secure the rights that they deserved. I did in many ways feel that I had a responsibility to ensure that what we were doing at that place and in that space would have been in line with what they had accomplished over their lifetimes.

Katie Schreyer: Are there any practices or ideals from Dr. King that can guide today's citizens as they continue to fight for human rights?

Terri Freeman: I think that people think of Dr. King and they think of peaceful protest, and that certainly was what he was known for, but I think people need to understand that he was still an activist, he was still a radical and he believed in the things that he believed in. When he started talking about capitalism, militarism and racism as the three evils of our country, the Vietnam War and when he came out against (President) Johnson, many people felt that he was betraying the movement. I think that his position is important and can be helpful as people decide to do organizing and work in the community. He stood on his beliefs and he was not intimidated by those people who said “you can't stand on your beliefs, you should stay in your lane." He had to stand on what he felt was the moral imperative, and the moral imperative was to do what was right for all people. I think that if we all still stood on our moral imperative, we would see our country, our nation, move in a little bit of a different direction and not be persuaded by what we think is politic, not worry about what people say about you on social media, but just stand on those things that you believe are right and remember that you have personal integrity that you always have to ensure it is intact.

[To learn more about intersections between the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement in Dayton, including Dr. King’s visit to campus in 1964, view our Vietnam Legacies virtual exhibition]

Katie Schreyer: Can museums take part in the social justice conversation while staying apolitical, or do they have to embrace a role as places for political discussion?

Terri Freeman: I don't think that we should be focused on politics with a capital P, but I do think we have to talk about policy and we have to recognize that the reason we're in the places that we're in now is because of policy decisions that were made by whatever political party that have had a negative impact on certain communities. While I would never be a proponent of talking about political parties inside of the museums that I’m managing, other than saying, “let's talk about the two party system and maybe begin to think outside of the box," I will talk about good policy and bad policy and go deep into good policy and bad policy and why some things don't work for the community and other things do work for the community. That's the role I think we should play now. If I’m having a public program and somebody wants to talk about a political candidate, I’m not going to shut them down, but my approach would not be then to come back and talk more about the political candidate, but to focus on the policies that, for example, created inequitable healthcare systems in our country. That's the way I think it's most effective.

Katie Schreyer: Thank you so much for speaking with us and for sharing your experiences. 

Terri Freeman: Thank you, Katie. You’ve been a fabulous interviewer.

For the entire interview, please visit our YouTube channel.

Katie Schreyer is a rising senior double majoring in History and Music. As an HRC intern, she worked on the Vietnam Legacies Project, conducted research on how young people use TikTok to talk about the Holocaust and is a Summer Fellow with the ARDC. She is interested in the ways museums advocate for human rights, especially over social media.

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