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Rep. John Lewis Speaker At Groundbreaking of National Museum He Helped Establish

February 22, 2012
Press Release

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 today 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 Rep. Lewis arrived in Congress in 1986, Rep. Mickey Leland (D-TX) 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, Rep. 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-NC) who was openly opposed to the project.

After 15 years of “persistence and consistency” the bill finally found passage with the bi-partisan support of Rep. J.C. Watts (R-OK), Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS). 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 Airman, and a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman.

Rep. Lewis spoke today 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. Following is the text of Rep. Lewis’s statement.

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 untrained eye. This is an idea whose time has come.

When I think about all it took to reach this point—the black Civil War veterans who took up this cause many decades ago, the spirited debate and the long years of silence, the lineage of advocates and their opponents.

When I think about the plane crash that killed one champion and the ironic election of this poor boy from Alabama who spent more than half of his congressional career introducing the museum bill, only to have it end in a bipartisan effort inspired by men of faith--it reminds me of the words of one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes, which seem so fitting here.

The name of the poem is Harlem, and in it he says, “What happens to a dream deferred.
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run?.... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or…. does it explode?”

Today we must thank the White House and the U.S. Congress, my former colleagues Governor Sam Brownback, Senator Max Cleland, and Congressman J.C. Watts, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch and his entire staff, the distinguished advisory councils of celebrities and scholars, and the generous corporate and individual donors who have taken a dream deferred and helped it find its place in history.

This is an end, but it is also a beginning. There is still much more work to do, and as we pursue this worthy goal sent to us down through the ages, we must not shrink. We must call on the courage of those who were in this struggle long before any of us were even born. We must tell the whole, 400- year story of the African American contribution to this nation’s history, from slavery to the present, without anger or apology.

The problems we face today as a nation make it plain that there is still a great deal of pain that needs to be healed. The stories told in this building can speak the truth that has the power to set an entire nation free and reveal the boldest lessons of liberty, justice and true democracy to us all. I look forward to the day when I can amble through the exhibits, search through the archives, participate in the programs, rest my tired feet in the café and get lost in history inside the granite walls of an idea whose time has finally come. Thank you.

Reporters seeking tape of the ceremony can request coverage shot by CSPAN.