John Lewis spent 15 years fighting for the museum — now the dream is realized

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I first learned there was an effort to establish a national museum dedicated to preserving African American history and culture during my first term in Congress after being elected in 1986. My colleague Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) discovered that the most recent legislative efforts had run aground a few years earlier because of an attempt by Rep. Clarence Brown (R-Ohio) and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) to take the project to Wilberforce, Ohio. Mickey resurrected the idea and asked me to co-sponsor it in 1988.

I have loved history ever since I was a boy. It started when I was so young. To celebrate Carter G. Woodson’s innovation — then called Negro History Week and now called Black History Month — my teachers would ask us to cut out pictures in magazines and newspapers of famous African Americans, such as Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver. Growing up in Alabama near Tuskegee Institute, reading about Carver and Booker T. Washington, attending Fisk University later with its world-class art collection and Jubilee Singers who had sung for Queen Victoria, I knew the power of legacy. Mickey did not have to ask me twice. I was on board to push the museum bill through.

Unfortunately, he was killed in a plane crash less than a year later. So the baton was passed to me. I introduced the museum bill in every session of Congress for 15 years. I got it through the House in 1994, but Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) mounted a filibuster against the bill. My Senate partners asked to meet in my office one day. They said, “John, we have the votes to get this through the Senate, but we just don’t have anything to trade Jesse.” That push did not lead to passage, but I had gotten closer than I ever had before.

Giving up on dreams is not an option for me. Optimism is essential to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, so hope in the face of challenge is the only alternative I see. I knew that if I was persistent and consistent, I would at least play my role well in this effort, but at most I could win a victory for humanity.

So I continued to introduce the legislation in every session of Congress and worked to find a way to get the bill through. Ultimately, I made a key alliance with Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. J.C. Watts (R–Okla.). The bill won passage in the House and Senate and was signed into law in 2003 by President George W. Bush. My final drive to the finish line was the completion of a dream first launched by visionary supporters of black Civil War veterans exactly 100 years ago.

On May 24, 1916, the National Memorial Association held a meeting in Washington at 19th Street Baptist Church, a nearly 180-year-old congregation still in existence today. Its members discussed the creation of “a beautiful building” they hoped to establish on the Mall. Their goal was “to commemorate the deeds American [N]egroes wrought for the perpetuation and advancement of the Nation,” celebrating their contribution to America in “military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry” and other areas of life. On this Sept. 24, exactly 100 years and four months later, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will finally open in Washington, D.C., prominently placed at the foot of the Washington Monument .

Millions of black men and women built this country through hard labor, sacrifice and suffering, through creativity and ingenuity, sheer willpower and enduring faith. They have fought in every war and defended the principles of democracy knowing they would not share in the victory. They did this not because they anticipated any benefit, but because they believed in something greater than themselves. That faith in the unseen and their ability to make a way out of no way is a demonstration of the character it took to build this nation, and that is why this museum deserves a prominent space among the memorials to the founders of this country.

People know so little about African American history. We want to try to hide nearly 400 years of history from ourselves, as though it will somehow disappear if we never mention it. But all around us we see pockets of the past erupting before our very eyes.

Some people thought that the hostility and angst around issues of race, for example, no longer existed in America, to the degree that they actually believed we were living in a post-racial society. Why? Because we spent the latter part of the 20th century burying any discussion of a racial divide and refusing to admit that antagonism was still festering beneath the surface in our society. We vilified people who suggested race could be a cause of conflict, believing our denial would somehow make the problem go away.

But the upheavals in our society today demonstrate that avoiding the truth is impossible. Covering a wound without treating it with medicine first only makes it fester and increases the danger of infection. Actually, it is confronting the truth that leads to liberation from our past. Yes, it may require an adjustment in our thinking, but in the final analysis the truth can lead to only one conclusion: We are one people, one family, the American family. We all live in one house, the American house, the world house. It will lead us to see the divine spark that resides in each and every one of us and is a part of the entire creation. It will lead us to see that we are more alike than we are different, that we are not separate, but we are one. That is why this museum can have a healing effect on our society.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Those are some of my favorite words by John Keats, and they resonate so clearly in this case. Only the truth has the power to lead us to the beauty we seek in our democracy. Only then can we build a Beloved Community in America.

Our Declaration of Independence declares each and every one of us has a divine legacy that nothing and no one can take away. So much of the American story is the legacy of our attempts to realize that truth through democracy, and almost all of our conflict has been founded in the foolhardy ambition to try to subvert that mission. Once we push the haze of myth away, we will see the truth of ourselves in each other. When we see ourselves in each other, then injustice and oppression are not so easily perpetrated.

Let the truth speak to our hearts and minds. Let this museum share the complete, unvarnished truth, without whitewash or avoidance, without sweeping the discomforting parts in some dark corner or under a rug. Let the curators and directors create ingenious ways to expose ourselves to ourselves so we can light the way to a more inclusive, truly democratic society.

Ultimately the African American story is a collection of some of the most inspiring stories in human history that demonstrate the invincible nature of every human spirit. It is the story of those who were denied equality but who laid down their lives in every generation to redeem the soul of America. “When the history books are written in future generations,” Dr. King once said, “the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people — a black people — who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ ”