When Woodrow “Woody” Keown became president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in November 2019, he had much to look forward to. But he got only as far as the King Legacy Celebration breakfast, which honors Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and observes the national holiday on the third Monday in January. The event’s keynote speaker was Betty Daniels Rosemond, a freedom rider and civil rights activist in the segregated South of the 1960s. Soon after, as we know, the pandemic upended everything, forcing the Freedom Center to close for several months and then slowly put itself back together.
Keown is happy to greet January 2023 with big new plans after some difficult years. An indication that things are looking up is the return of the King Legacy programming, and this year’s speaker, Brittany Packnett Cunningham (pictured), represents a vision for a better future. (There will also be a streaming option to hear her remarks.) “We made it through the restrictions and risk situation pretty well,” says Keown, “but we’re looking to get people back into the museum.”
Cunningham is a millennial influencer with an impressive history of social justice activism, including serving on Missouri’s Ferguson Commission, formed in response to protests over the 2014 death of Michael Brown Jr. in suburban St. Louis, and on president Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; being an MSNBC contributor; hosting the Undistracted news and justice podcast; and launching Love & Power Works LLC, described in her bio as “a full-service social impact firm focused on creating justice and equity in every sector.”
Keown says he sought her for this year’s program because, while the Freedom Center has always been about social justice, “We’re looking for fresh new voices to help us get that message out, and we’re trying to identify and inspire young social activists interested in positive social change that’s nonviolent. It struck me that Ms. Cunningham had a young, new voice and had been recognized by a number of people on a national scale, including president Obama. We’re trying to create this new generation of abolitionists in terms of how multicultural people in different phases of work and life can bond in unity.” (Cunningham was not available for an interview.)
Looking beyond January, Keown says he wants the Freedom Center to host more traveling and special exhibitions, including those featuring artifacts. One arrives on March 18: Solidarity Now! 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, originated by the Smithsonian. The display comes here after visiting two of the nation’s most emotionally resonant “museums of conscience,” the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
The Poor People’s Campaign originated with an idea that Martin Luther King Jr. had in 1967 to expand on recent civil rights victories by asking the poor of all classes and races to come to Washington, D.C., and lobby for government help with employment and better housing. Plans continued after King’s assassination in April 1968; the campaign culminated with a march on June 19, 1968.
Keown also plans to expand use of the Freedom Center’s 300-seat Harriet Tubman Theater in 2023 and beyond. “We’re working on a more diverse range of performing arts programming related to social justice, and also some concerts,” he says. “We’re negotiating with artists and in collaboration with some other entities. These will help us drive home our focus on social justice in different ways than just having visitors come in to go through the museum.”