By Special to the Daily World
WASHINGTON — As the original sponsor of the legislation which authorized the building of the National African American Museum of History and Culture, Rep. John Lewis was one of the speakers recently at the groundbreaking for the newest Smithsonian Institute museum on the National Mall. The effort was begun almost 100 years ago by Black veterans of the Civil War who were concerned that the contributions of Black soldiers were not acknowledged. The idea had some supporters, but the stock market crash of 1929 killed the flow of private contributions.
The next major push for passage would not occur until after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. led new members of the Congressional Black Caucus to resurrect this bill. When Lewis arrived in Congress in 1986, Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, was introducing legislation to authorize a national museum to document the African- American contribution to this country. When Leland died in a tragic plane crash, Lewis became the original sponsor for the bill, introducing it in every session of Congress for over half of his congressional career. At one juncture, the bill was blocked by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who openly opposed the project.
After 15 years of “persistence and consistency” the bill finally found passage with the bipartisan support of Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.; Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.; and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas. It was signed into law in 2003, after which an A-list board of celebrities and scholars was chosen to pursue the dream. Board members include Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Bob Johnson, Richard Parsons and Linda Johnson Rice, among others.
The museum director, Lonnie Bunch, has begun building a collection for the museum and has already purchased the Bible used by John Brown who mounted the Harper’s Ferry Raid, for example, one of the planes used by the Tuskegee Airmen, and a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman.
Lewis spoke Wednesday, Feb. 22, on a program moderated by actress Phylicia Rashad along with President Barack Obama, former first lady and current board member Laura Bush, and Gov. Sam Brownback. The president and Mrs. Obama were present during the entire program. The president spoke at the end of the ceremonies.
Lewis said, “What we are witnessing today will go down in history. It is the substance of things hoped for and the validation of our dreams. It is the moment a people protested, struggled, and longed for. It is the moment millions of our ancestors believed in, but died never to behold. It is that point of critical mass when an idea becomes so powerful, it leaves the realms of inspiration and becomes visible even to the