Champions emerge at different times, under different circumstances, and with different callings and missions, leaving an indelible imprint upon the world. Some from outside Memphis find their way here, and increasingly more so thanks to the National Civil Rights Museum and its annual Freedom Awards.
On Tuesday (Oct. 16), the Freedom Awards brigade expanded for the 2012 honorees: Legacy Award – Drs. George Jenkins, Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt, aka "The Three Doctors"; Humanitarian Award – Marlo Thomas, actor, author, philanthropist and daughter of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's founder; International Award – Dr. Muhammad Yunus, economist and banker to the poor; and National Freedom Award – Dr. Bernard Lafayette, longstanding activist for peace and nonviolence.
With Memphis and the Museum as a bond, each now has a fresh memory of crossing paths with the legacy of the most recognized dreamer of our times, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated (April 4, 1968) on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel – the anchor for the museum.
"A lot of our young people don't dream as much as they should," said Dr. Lafayette, who for years has worked to keep alive Dr. King's dream of internationalizing and institutionalizing nonviolence. Today, he is chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King co-founded in 1957.
"Dr. King's last words to me were, 'I want to internationalize and institutionalize nonviolence,'" Lafayette said in his acceptance speech at the Cannon Center downtown. "When you institutionalize something, then the people themselves can do it."
These days, Lafayette is busy building Kingian centers for peace and nonviolence through universities and SCLC chapters, with the aim of institutionalizing and internationalizing nonviolence. In November, SCLC will welcome its thousandth chapter, this one in South Africa.
Dr. King's vision is also internationalized through Yunus, who discovered that very small loans could make a disproportionate difference to a poor person in Bangladesh. He began by making personal loans to women making bamboo furniture.
His mission began with poverty reduction, but it's now poverty eradication, through micro credit.
"The problem was so big I could not solve it all at once, so it led me to do tiny little things to make me feel good," he said.
"We work with poor women, because the impact in the family is better by dealing with women. We worked to make them self-sustainable through micro-loans of $27."
No collateral is involved, said Yunus. "Our loans are built on trust. We learned from conventional banks. We learned what and how they did it and we did the opposite," he said earlier in the day at the annual Freedom Award Public Forum held downtown at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ.
In his acceptance speech Tuesday night, Yunus said, "Poverty is not created by the poor people. Poverty is created by the system. We have to work with the system and find out how the system went wrong."
Yunus and his team now work with 160 million people all over the world.
'Research is about hope'
"Memphis is my second home," declared Thomas, whose father, Danny Thomas, founded Memphis' world renowned, pediatric research hospital.
"My father devoted his life to building a place where all children, regardless of race, religion or the ability to pay could receive equality health care," said Thomas. "The greatest health insurance to have is research....Research is about hope."
Results help build on hope. Thomas said in 1962 only four percent of children treated for cancer were surviving. Today, St. Jude is curing 94 percent of children with cancer, she said.
"My father was a dreamer. He dreamed and he thought big. Now our children and our doctors come from all over the world."
Why did Danny Thomas build St. Jude in Memphis?
"Other places were being considered. It was because there are forces in our lives that lead us to our destiny," said Marlo Thomas.
"For years my father kept a crumpled up newspaper article in his wallet of an eight-year-old black child hit by a car and died because no one would treat him. It was then that he decided he'd make sure all children had access to quality health care," Thomas said.
"I'm a changed woman because of St. Jude. I had no intentions of being the one responsible for my father's dream. It's changed me as a human being. It's added to my life....
"Memphis is a city of dreams, of very big dreams."
'Thank you for dreaming big'
In November 2011, at the 21st celebration of the National Civil Rights Museum, its president, Beverly Robertson, said, "Thank you for the past twenty years and for the twenty years to some! As they say in the world of competitive sports, 'Dream big or go home!'"
The museum, said Robertson, continues, "to fulfill the dreams and goals of people searching for a lasting monument and testimony to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement."
Now a multi-million dollar renovation is underway.
"This renovation will ensure content updates, more interactive exhibitions, increased use of historic artifacts and provide for a more cohesive interpretive campus experience," said Robertson.
"Thank you for dreaming BIG!"
NOTE: Dr. George Jenkins represented his fellow Legacy Award winners – Drs. Sampson Davis and Rameck Hunt – at the Freedom Award Public Form, but was unable to attend the Tuesday night gala.