MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The National Civil Rights Museum, built around the motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, is drawing criticism that its governing board is too white and too closely tied to big business to watch over such an important piece of black history.
"The board should more nearly approximate the soldiers of the civil rights movement that it celebrates, and they were overwhelmingly African-American," said D'Army Bailey, a black Tennessee judge who played a major role in the museum's founding but resigned from the board in 1991 when it refused to make him chairman.
The museum opened 16 years ago at the old Lorraine Motel and is run by a foundation under a lease from the state. A citizens group largely inspired by Bailey opposes renewal of the foundation's lease and argues that the museum should instead be run by the government, whether local, state or federal.
Of its 32 board members, the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation lists 12 as representatives of large corporations, including FedEx, AutoZone and International Paper. Fifteen board members are black, 15 are white, one is Hispanic and one is of East Indian heritage.
Board member Pitt Hyde III, a white man and the retired founder and chief executive of AutoZone, defended the makeup of the museum's leadership, saying: "I think we have a very representative board that's a cross-section of the community."
And board chairman Benjamin Hooks, a black man and former head of the NAACP, said the corporate representation helps the museum raise the private gifts and corporate donations on which it relies so heavily. Hyde's family foundation, for example, has contributed more than $4 million.
Having executives on the board "also helps with matters involving business practices, the best business practices that we can bring in from the corporate world to the nonprofit world," Hooks said.
The complaints lodged by the citizens group, the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Community Oversight Committee, are drawing attention from the Memphis City Council and black state lawmakers.
The museum "shouldn't be in the hands of powerbrokers," said Joe Brown, a black city councilman.
Some 200,000 people visit the museum each year to see the motel room where King stayed when he visited Memphis to support a garbage workers' strike. The room is set up to appear as it looked moments before King walked onto the Lorraine's balcony and was cut down by a rifle bullet.
The rest of the museum offers a vivid tour of the civil rights movement in America, from the early slave trade, through the turbulent 1950s and 1960s to today.
Local and state government spent $5 million to build the museum, and the state owns the former motel, which houses the main exhibits.
The foundation's lease was scheduled to expire Sept. 30. It was extended for 90 days to continue talks on the museum's request for a longer-term lease of perhaps 50 years and more state funding for maintenance.
A 50-year lease would be the same as giving the museum to the foundation, critics argue.
"We want our museum to remain public," said state Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Memphis Democrat who is chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.
But Hooks asked: "Is the city prepared to spend millions of dollars a year to keep it up? Some people do not realize that it's easier to say than to do."
Similarly, Michael Fitts, chief of staff for the State Building Commission, said the state lacks the expertise and money to take over the museum.
An earlier citizens group led by Bailey and a few colleagues raised $144,000 to buy the dilapidated Lorraine Motel at foreclosure auction in 1982 and lobbied for years to get public financing for the museum.
Bailey is now one of the board's harshest critics, accusing its members of letting the museum fall into disrepair while worrying more about their own public image than the civil rights movement.
"What better public relations instrument do they have in the city were Dr. King died?" Bailey said. "They have hijacked King."
The museum has an operating budget of more than $4 million a year, with about $1 million coming from donations and most of the rest from admissions and special events. The foundation raised $11 million for an expansion five years ago that added two buildings to the museum and doubled its size.
James Earl Ray a small-time crook and escaped convict, pleaded guilty to killing King and died in prison in 1998.