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Beverly Robertson to retire from National Civil Rights Museum

  • Written by Tony Jones

26robertsonBeverly Robertson still cries sometimes when she visits Room 306, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was staying at the Lorraine Motel before he stepped outside and into the path of an assassin's bullet.

During 16 years of what National Civil Rights Museum Board Chairman Herbert Hilliard calls "momentous progress and accomplishments," Robertson has viewed the room untold times as the museum's president.

Come July 1, 2014, that will end. Robertson announced her retirement Tuesday (Nov. 26) and it will be effective that day. On Tuesday afternoon, she spoke with The New Tri-State Defender.

"I have been so honored to work here, and I have seen a phenomenal amount of change in that time. I've been through two major capital projects, annual fund campaigns, 16 Freedom Award events, a number of board members, employees and friends of the museum, it's just time," said Robertson.

"I sat and thought, what is to be done after the opening of the renovation? What more is there for me to do? Sometimes you have to quit while you're ahead. You can reach the point of diminishing return and I would never want that for this institution, so I'm leaving on my own terms."

Hilliard said the museum would conduct a national search for Robertson's successor.
"Since 1997, Beverly has led the museum in an era characterized by exciting progress, accomplishment, and growing national and international prestige, all of which are a direct result of her special brand of leadership and her commitment to being a steward for one of America's most hallowed historic places," said Hilliard.

"Although she is retiring at the end of our fiscal year in July, 2014, she will remain involved through the rest of the calendar year to ensure a smooth transition and continuity in leadership."
The announcement comes as a pre-amble to another crucially important year for the museum. Robertson and team have created and presided over a $140 million growth model that will be revealed early next year.

The National Freedom Awards are a perfect example of the professional acumen and reputation Robertson's known for. Luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, former President Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, who declared it "this holy place," have brought worldwide acclaim to the National Civil Rights Museum by their personal acceptance of the award.

Robertson's down-to-earth professionalism also made sure names not as readily known to much of the public were among the honorees. That includes 2013 honoree the Rev. C. T. Vivian, who helped organize the Nashville Sit-Ins, the Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington.

So, in 10 years time, what would she like see when dropping in for a visit?

"You know I've thought about that and I'd like to see the museum expand its reach beyond the people that come through our doors," she said. "Right now we have about 200,000 people that come here on an annual basis, with about 60,000 of those are school children. I would like to see that number double and a very real priority is to take the museum to rural areas where those who may not have the access or the ability to come here and visit."

She also thinks it is equally important to expand internationally.

"The story told here is of global importance because it informs activism and human rights victories throughout the world. I hope some of the work we have done certainly places us in a national spotlight, but as we get more international visitors to Memphis, we are really pleased to see the mix of ethnicities and people that come to the museum."

Absolutely committed to be around through the end of the year "in case I'm needed to help with the transition," Robertson is only just beginning to process a vast storehouse of memories associated with the museum.

"You cannot approach it (Room 306) without having to pause," she said. "You feel the resonance of what occurred and you feel the resonance of what it means. I can't help but get emotional when I hear Mahalia Jackson singing and I look over at the bed where he rested and then out the window. It's still a powerful place.

"This is the only museum to be built upon such a pivotal event," said Robertson. "Anytime anyone comes and passes by that room it is always emotional and I am certainly no different. This history at the National Civil Rights Museum must always be preserved and celebrated."

Well, Beverly Robertson did her part.

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