“He was a giant!,” said Butch Spyridon.
“He was a hero!,” said Kevin Lavender.
These are among the first words that these men shared when we discussed Ben Rechter’s passing. But that’s not all; in his departure, the family has lost a beloved brother and father, our museum has lost its biggest advocate, the city of Nashville has lost one of its most dedicated and principled leaders, I’ve lost a friend, and, I agree with Kevin, we’ve all lost a hero.
Most of you know that getting this museum completed was far from an easy task–23 years in the making. Ben was there from the beginning, and when I stepped over to become CEO in 2013, that’s when Ben stepped up. It’s no secret that he and his wife Joan led financially; but more than that, Ben became a strategist and steady hand for the board, an instigator for the community, and coach, confidence-booster, corrector and counselor for me. And these mere words don’t say enough.
It is no overstatement to say that, without Ben Rechter’s vision and commitment, there would be no National Museum of African American Music!
With that in mind, I will confess that, over these last few weeks, I’ve been bothered by something: Ben never got to see the museum. To my knowledge, the last time he was at 5th and Broadway was at our groundbreaking in April of 2017. That bothered me.
I talked to my wife, Crystal, about it. Ben L. and I spoke about it. The team at the museum spoke about it. We made tentative plans to make it convenient for him and Joan to see the museum they built.
But over the last several days, I’d decided to let it rest. It wasn’t what Ben was focused on, and it didn’t feel like the right thing to insist on.
And then I got the call from Ben L. on Monday morning. It was as I’d feared. Our hero had gone on up a little higher.
Later on Monday, I read a piece in The Tennessean that Ben had written in January addressing bias and racism. Somehow, I’d not seen it previously, but in it, he ponders:
“Why haven’t the good, the enlightened, the just – our side – won?”
In this article, he reminds us all about the three degrees of advocacy, and as I continued, I could hear his voice clearly and firmly, answering his own question and providing us with instructions:
“… the passive advocates must become moderate advocates, the moderate advocates must become committed advocates, and the committed advocates must hold their ground until reinforcements arrive…Our lives are defined by those ACTIONS we take about what we believe.”
These words resonated and reminded me that in Ben we had a man of action.
A man whose work with Fisk University, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the United Way, the Urban League, the Girl Scout Council, the Nashville Public Education Foundation, and so many other civic groups meant that companies of reinforcements would be trained for the fight.
In Ben, we had a man who had apparently decided that he would take one final, definitive step, and that he would plant one great, big, giant 56,000-square-foot “One Nation Under a Groove” flag in the heart of Nashville – as if to leave no doubt that he was a committed advocate. And to ensure that his actions would provide a beacon for the reinforcements that are still on the way.
And as I was reminded of these things, it occurred to me that Ben did in fact see the museum.
· I think he could see that NMAAM would bring about a new measure of dignity and inclusion for so many in our city. Our side is winning.
· I think he could see how NMAAM would cause conversation in Tennessee that would bring us together. Our side is winning.
· I think he could see that “One Nation Under a Groove” was more than a P-Funk song, but rather that it was a creed that all of us – from New York to Louisville to Los Angeles, and certainly from Bloomington to Nashville – should live by. In so doing, his side is winning.
· I think he could see that the mission that he and Francis Guess started together would be complete. His side is winning.
I think that Ben saw the museum before any of us did.
You will be missed, Ben, a giant, a hero, a friend.
H. Beecher Hicks, III
May 13, 2021