Sunday, August 06, 2000

Tutu gets freedom award

Event raises museum's profile

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Archbishop Desmond Tutu talks with Merri Gaither-Smith, chair of the International Freedom Conductor Award gala.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        COVINGTON — South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu had to overcome a “slave mentality” in himself, created by apartheid, before he could lead opposition to his native country's brutal racial separation policies, he said Saturday night.

        The 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner was honored by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with the International Freedom Conductor Award.

        During his 30-minute speech, the Rev. Mr. Tutu recounted a flight he took in neighboring Nigeria. The plane was being flown by an all-black crew.

        “I grew several inches when I saw that ... but then we hit bad weather,” he said. “I even thought we could be in trouble because there was no white man in the cockpit. Obviously, I made it — but I saw what this racial injustice had done to me.”

        Organizers of the event said the recognition helps put the Freedom Center in the public spotlight.

        “This gives us incredible visibility, especially when we start calling on national cor porations and donors,” said Procter & Gamble Chairman John Pepper, the center's capital campaign co-chair. “They always ask us if this is of national importance or whether this will be only for Cincinnati or Southwestern Ohio. This shows it is not only national, but this has international importance.”

        The event drew about 1,200 people to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, where a cappella and drum groups greeted the participants. The crowd was larger than for the 1998 gala held to honor civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

        That event grossed $500,000. Freedom Center director and chief operating officer John Fleming said Saturday night that at least that much was expected this time. Individual tickets for Saturday's event were $150.

        “We tried to get the Cincinnati Convention Center, because we knew we could easily sell 1,500-1,800 tickets,” Mr. Fleming said.

        It was announced during the event that the museum has funding of $51 million so far, including a gift of $1 million pledged by Toyota North American Division. In addition, the center has become an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.

        The Rev. Mr. Tutu made a brief appearance early at a pre-dinner reception. Other speakers included entertainer Harry Belafonte, federal Judge Nathaniel Jones, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, and Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton.

        A videotaped message from President Clinton was played.

        “If the divine fire of Harriet Tubman burns bright in anyone, it burns bright in Bishop Tutu,” the president said.

        Modeled after the Nobel Peace Prize, the Conductor Award honors contemporary individuals who have made significant contributions to freedom and human rights around the world.

        Raising awareness of the center locally also was the goal of the event, a goal Mr. Pepper thought was achieved just by selecting the Rev. Mr. Tutu as the honoree.

        “Just getting a chance to learn about the life of someone like Reverend Tutu has really been inspirational,” Mr. Pepper said.

        The $90 million complex is to open in 2003 along Cincinnati's riverfront between Walnut and Vine streets.

        More detailed plans for the museum, which will chronicle the efforts of slaves to escape to the North as well as freedom movements around the world, were unveiled Thursday.

        Mr. Fleming said the museum design process is about half done.

        “We want to make the same impact nationally and internationally that the Holocaust museum (in Washington, D.C.) did,” Mr. Pepper said. “We want to take this thing global.”

        Honoring the Rev. Mr. Tutu will also raise the profile of the award itself, said Judge Jones.

        “He puts the "international' in International Freedom Conductor award,” said Judge Jones, co-chair of the center's board of trustees. “And for him to accept and come here really raises our visibility as well.”

        But according to Mr. Fleming, the Rev. Mr. Tutu didn't act as if he were an award winner when he arrived early Saturday.

        “He walked right up to us and introduced himself like we didn't know who he was,” Mr. Fleming said. “That just reinforced to me that we made the right decision.”

• Friday story: Freedom Center complex to be striking
• Saturday story: Tutu foresees 'yet another mountain'

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