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    Six win Freedom Awards in Memphis

    Michael Lollar - The Commercial Appeal -

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. turned down the chance to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia in order to continue his civil rights work, his former aide, Bernard Lafayette, said Tuesday after accepting a National Freedom Award for his role in the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

    Lafayette, who worked with King as national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, offered no specifics, but said King was told that if he gave up the helm of the rights movement and "towed the line," he could become a U.S. senator in his home state.

    Lafayette was one of six honorees Tuesday in the National Civil Rights Museum's 21st anniversary Freedom Awards forum at Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ. (A formal ceremony was held later at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts prior to an awards banquet at Memphis Cook Convention Center.)

    Actress Marlo Thomas, national outreach director for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, received the Humanitarian Award for stepping into the shoes of her late father, St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. And Muhammad Yunus accepted the International Freedom Award as founder of Grameen Bank for which he and the bank were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for making collateral-free loans to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh.

    Dr. George Jenkins accepted a Legacy Award for himself and fellow doctors Rameck Hunt and Sampson Davis for working with students based on their own experience in making a pact to help each other graduate together from medical school. Known as "The Three Docs," they had grown up without fathers in New Jersey housing projects and met at a magnet school where they bonded and agreed to help each other stay on track to get medical degrees.

    Jenkins, who now teaches dentistry at Columbia University in New York, told the audience, made up primarily of area students, to "surround yourself with positive people" and "strive for excellence."

    Yunus of Bangladesh had received a Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and taught economics at Middle Tennessee State University before returning to Bangladesh. In 1983 he founded Grameen Bank using the idea of microeconomics to make loans available to the poor. About 97 percent of borrowers were women. "We looked at conventional banks to see how they do it. Then we did just the opposite," he told the forum audience.

    After a news conference following the forum, Yunus said each borrower had to submit a business plan with their loan request. On average, more than 97 percent of the loans are repaid, the highest recovery rate in banking, he said. In 2006, Yunus and the bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the unconventional banking plan which focuses on what Yunus describes as trust and solidarity. His banks now operate in 1,781 branches and provide credit to 5.6 million poor people in 60,815 villages in Bangladesh.

    Marlo Thomas followed Yunus to the stage with heavy applause as she reminded the audience, "Memphis is one of my homes." She is familiar to many as the star of the 1966-71 TV sitcom "That Girl," the first TV show to focus on a single girl who did not live with her parents. She later helped cofound the Ms. Foundation for Women to raise money and other resources to make women's voices heard.

    Thomas said that when St. Jude opened in 1962 one of the most common forms of cancer in children was lymphoblastoma, which then had only a four percent survival rate. "We're now curing 94 percent (of those cases)," she said. As children, she said her father told her, her brother and sister that St. Jude "was not a burden for us to carry." If it was a form of reverse psychology, it worked, she said. "I am very grateful for the privilege of the responsibility."