MEMPHIS, Tenn.– One of Memphis’ biggest nights has returned to the public for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Hundreds filed into the Orpheum Theatre for the National Civil Rights Museum’s 31st Annual Freedom Award celebrating significant contributions to civil and human rights. Thursday night was all about paying tribute to the three honorees and their outstanding contributions to civil and human rights.

“When you get to 2022, what it means to be a Freedom Award recipient has changed and it’s evolving our work still has a lot of civil rights work to do changes over time,” said Russell Wigginton, President of the National Civil Rights Museum.

This year, FedEx founder Fred Smith is among the honorees. Beyond leaving a mark in the business world, he said the company proudly gave opportunities to people of color during the civil rights movement.

“I’m humbled. It’s a team effort though. My wife Diane and 7,000 other FedExers won this award,” Smith said. “How many great African-Americans built FedEx from pilots to senior vice presidents to engineers to pick up and delivery people…that’s what it’s all about.”

The other recipients include Pulitzer Prize winners Isabel Wilkerson and Taylor Branch who both said their unwavering connection to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is felt strongly in their life’s work and contributions to humanity.

“It is incredible how many people have won this award and how I have such a deep connection to them, and to Dr. King and everything this represents. This is a culmination of so much of the work I do,” said Isabel Wilkerson.

Knowing she’s joining the likes of King, Michelle Obama President Joe Biden, and so many other impactful leaders, it’s a feeling Taylor Branch calls magical.

“American history shows you can forget anything if you can turn it into the idea that you can say doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s hard to forget personal stories like Bob Moses Dr. King, and all the heroes I follow,” Branch said.

The event also paid special tribute to Jeffrey Robinson, the director of the project that tackles racial justice.

Guests also were tributed to a performance from headliner gospel legend BeBe Winans.