The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, the “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Black Lives Matter” meme of today’s protesters all testify to the power of words in the struggle for social justice in America.
So it’s no surprise that many past winners of the annual Freedom Award of the National Civil Rights Museum have been gifted speakers, orators, politicians, writers and even vocal performers: Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Bono of U2 and so on.
But images — Emmett Till’s mangled face, Rosa Parks under arrest, Memphis sanitation workers wearing “I Am a Man” signs — have had just as much impact as words in inspiring human rights recognition. So it’s appropriate that this year’s group of Freedom Award recipients includes a woman known as an image-maker: Ava DuVernay, director of “Selma,” the 2014 civil rights drama that was a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“The images that we consume really nourish what we think about each other and feed what we feel about each other,” said DuVernay, 42, who is making her first visit to Memphis for Thursday’s Freedom Awards ceremony at Downtown’s Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. “So much of what we think about each other comes through the images we see in the stories that we are told.”
DuVernay is one of three honorees for this year’s Freedom Awards. The others include Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who as a student activist participated in Freedom Rides, lunch-counter sit-ins and other key 1960s events, and Ruby Bridges-Hall, whose lifetime of activism began in 1960, when she was the 6-year-old student who integrated the New Orleans public school system.
“This year we have an all-women slate of award-winners, and I really think they epitomize the roles that women have played in civil rights, up to and including today,” said Terri Lee Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Freeman said honoring DuVernay was particularly timely because 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the famous voting rights marches