Another historic crusade
for John Lewis
For 28 years, the Georgia congressman fought for a national museum of African-American history.
The doors are about to open.
M ore than 23 years ago, U.S. Rep. John Lewis took a reporter from this newspaper to a venerable red brick building on the National Mall for which he had great plans.
“You could put a whole slave ship in here,” the Atlanta Democrat said as he walked through the long, two-story grand hall of the Arts and Industries building, located just east of the Smithsonian Castle. “You could put a Greyhound bus in here.”
Lawmakers in June 1993 were on the verge of passing a bill that would have converted the cavernous 19th-century structure into a national museum of African-American history.
What Lewis didn’t know was that his effort would fizzle in the Senate, blocked by a member of the chamber who had a history of being a staunch segregationist.
But like so many of Lewis’ crusades during his long career as a congressman and civil rights leader, he purposefully yet respectfully pushed forward.
It took him 10 more years to shepherd the concept through Congress, but next weekend Lewis will finally witness the opening of a Smithsonian museum that traces the history and celebrates the contributions of African Americans in the United States from slavery to the present.
Washington is set to honor the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture — a gleaming bronze structure across the Mall from the Arts and Industries building — in grand style on Sept. 24.
On the agenda is a three-day cultural festival near the Washington Monument, a private concert at the Kennedy Center and dedication ceremony featuring Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Georgians are planning to travel to Washington by the busload.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do when it’s open. I’m probably going to cry,” said Lewis in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, which itself feels like a museum. “It’s probably going to be a little too much.”
For Lewis, 76, the museum is the fruit of 28 years of advocacy in Congress, another example of perseverance in the face of long odds on Capitol Hill and beyond. It’s also a capstone to a career on the crest of the civil rights movement, one that comes at a time when shootings and protests have laid bare just how far the country has to go to before achieving full racial equality and reconciliation.
II — A museum in the nation’s capital
The 400,000-square-foot museum, situated between the Washington Monument and Smithsonian’s American history museum, is striking in its uniqueness.
Unlike the gray, neoclassical museums that surround it, the building is cased in ironwork meant to emulate the work of New Orleans slaves and looks like a multi-layered crown.
The side of the building that faces the Mall includes an overhang reminiscent of a porch, a metaphor meant to reflect the museum’s place at the symbolic heart of the country. The location is significant on another level — slaves once lived and labored under harsh conditions nearby to build the White House and Capitol.
“It’s the right place to tell the story,” said Lewis.
Visitors enter through a bright main lobby blanketed in the unusual shadow patterns cast by the outside ironwork. From there, the museum plunges several stories underground for exhibits that trace the history of African-Americans from the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade through Obama’s election. Upstairs exhibits focus on African-American contributions to sports, music, the arts and the military.
“It should inspire people from all over America and from around the world. But it also should lead to a sense of community, a sense of healing, bringing us together as one people, one family, one house,” Lewis said.
The Georgia lawmaker’s involvement with the museum can be traced back to his first term in Congress in 1988. The concept of a structure recognizing the contributions of African-Americans, however, has been around for more than a century.
Black Civil War veterans first raised the idea of a national monument for African-American soldiers in the Nation’s Capital in 1916, according to Robert Wilkins, a federal judge who wrote a book about the museum.
From that era of segregation and Jim Crow to 2001, when the museum was finally given the thumbs-up by Congress, the project’s pathway on Capitol Hill was characterized by fits and starts. Its legislative momentum was often overshadowed by the country’s biggest events in the 20th century, including the Great Depression, World War II and 9/11.
“It seems like the project was plagued by opposition all along and also by bad timing,” Wilkins said. “It seemed like whatever could go wrong seemed to go wrong.”
Some interest in an African-American history museum was sparked during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but no real momentum developed until 20 years later, when a Washington businessman began lobbying for one.
In 1986, Rep. Mickey Leland, a Texas Democrat, steered through Congress a non-binding resolution endorsing the idea of a national black history museum, and Lewis quickly joined the crusade when he entered Congress a year later.
III — Lewis steps in
When Lewis introduced his first bill for a museum within the umbrella of the Smithsonian in 1988, the concept was not widely accepted.
Among the biggest initial skeptics were leaders of the Smithsonian, who worried about money and limited space on the National Mall. In 1989, the Institution’s secretary, Robert McCormick Adams, testified on Capitol Hill that the history of blacks in America could be told be told in a “wing” of an existing museum.
Lewis was furious.
“Many people believe that African-American history has not been accorded its proper place in mainstream American cultural institutions and history texts,” the congressman wrote in an op-ed in The Atlanta Constitution in August 1990. “The idea of putting black history into a ‘wing’ gives credence to the notion that African-Americans have not been justly credited for their contributions.”
A watershed moment came in 1991, when the project won the support of Smithsonian’s board of regents. But Lewis, who had taken over as lead on the project after Leland’s death, still had to convince colleagues that such a museum was worth hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Capitol Hill colleagues protested everything from the museum’s cost — how much should be funded publicly versus private donations? — to its location and very existence.
Lewis’ biggest foe was Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the senator who held up Lewis’ proposal for the Arts and Industries building in the mid-1990s. A fierce critic of the Civil Rights Act who waged a 16-day filibuster against designating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, Helms argued that if a museum opened on the Mall honoring African-American history and culture, “every other minority” would ask taxpayers for their own building.
Helms blocked Lewis’ museum bill in the Senate even after it passed the House. At another point in the 1990s, the measure had passed the Senate but not the House.
Despite the contentious nature of the project, Lewis continued to reintroduce the bill every two years until its eventual approval.
He was forced to compromise on a few things, such as moving the proposed museum from the Arts and Industries building to a new site. But the museum’s path finally cleared in 2001, when Lewis teamed up with then-Sen. Sam Brownback, a religious conservative who had explored other bills related to racial reconciliation at the time.
The pair joined with Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and another Georgia lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, and doors began to open.
“I really sold it as a museum of reconciliation,” said Brownback, now the governer of Oklahoma. “This is like the holocaust museum in that sense where you hope people go through it and see the shackles and see the pictures of horrible things and say ‘never again’ and that there will be tears, tears of reconciliation.”
Cleland declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the effort “was all John Lewis.”
In 2001, Congress passed a bill creating a commission to study a museum, and two years later President George W. Bush signed the legislation creating it. Congress eventually agreed to provide $270 million for the project, money to be matched with an equal amount of private fund raising.
Video: Museum walk thru
Video: Erica Hernandez
IV — Building the collection
The next challenge was raising money and building a collection of artifacts from scratch.
Several Georgians contributed to that effort, which included traveling to cities such as Atlanta to speak with regional black history and civil rights museums as well as members of the public who had items to donate.
“Once we were talking about a national museum people began to come forth with artifacts and things that some of the other local museums probably weren’t able to get,” said Robert Wright, a Columbus businessman and philanthropist who served on the museum’s commission.
The museum’s first major corporate donor was the Columbus-based Aflac Inc., according to Wright, who sat on the insurance giant’s board at the time. Smaller gifts also poured in from church groups and individuals offering whatever they could.
The museum eventually acquired nearly 40,000 artifacts. Crown jewels of the collection are Emmett Till’s casket, a slave cabin from South Carolina and stools from the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina.
The south plays a particularly prominent role throughout the museum as the epicenter of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. Largely missing from the collection, however, are major representations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal effects becausehis heirs could not reach agreement with the museum on their use.
“What we’re looking at is a more complicated understanding of the role of the south, that we don’t just start with the civil rights movement but we go back to the creation of the Chesapeake or the creation of Louisiana to help people understand how race has always been embedded in these societies from the very beginning,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director.
It also seeks to capture the spirit of resilience in the African-American community in the face of a tortured circumstances.
Video: John Lewis discusses the museum
Video: Erica Hernandez and Cox Washington Bureau
V - A chance to heal
The museum’s opening comes as Lewis himself worries the country is backsliding after a bloody summer has demonstrated law enforcement’s often unequal treatment of blacks. He hopes the space will help counter racial tensions.
“I truly believe that this museum can be helpful in moving us closer to a period of healing and maybe toward bringing the American community together, where we can lay down the burden of race,” said Lewis.
Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron, who was a member of the museum’s board, sees the site and next week’s dedication with Obama as a reminder of how far America has come since he was growing up in segregated Mobile, Ala., where the Ku Klux Klan would march through the city and light fires.
“I remember that very well,” Aaron said. So “it means an awful lot to me to have a black president at this time to make remarks.”
Lewis said he’ll also be pinching himself when Obama attends the opening of the museum, which features an exhibit devoted to his work. At the center of the display case? A copy of the bill he shepherded through Congress that created the institution.
“If someone had told me even when I came to Congress and started working on this effort that one day I would be standing with an African American president — that I would live to see one and I could call him my friend? I would have said ‘you’re crazy,’” Lewis said. “It’s unreal.”
Georgians celebrated at new black history museum
Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture features many items with ties to Georgia.
One of the museum’s main thoroughfares includes a segregated railway car circa 1920 that serviced routes in Georgia and other Southern states. There are also exhibits about civil rights icon and Atlanta congressman John Lewis, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1881 strike undertaken by Atlanta washerwomen requesting higher wages.
The museum does not have any major personal mementos from Martin Luther King Jr., whose artifacts are held tightly by his children. The Washington Post reported that the museum’s curator was interested in procuring King’s traveling Bible but was unable to come to an agreement with the family on displaying it permanently or temporarily at the Smithsonian.
When asked about the lack of King artifacts, the museum’s Director Lonnie Bunch said the “goal was not to create a story of MLK from personal mementos.”
“The story is to marry objects with film footage and his words to tell that story,” Bunch told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If we get other material, that would be great and we will continue to evolve and change over time but right now I’m pretty satisfied with what we’ve got.”
The museum does exhibit the congressional gold medal awarded posthumously to King and his wife Coretta in 2014 and the tub with which King soaked his feet after his five day march from Selma to Montgomery to highlight racial injustice.
Georgians also play prominently in the top floor of the museum, which highlights the influence of African-Americans on music forms as broad as jazz, soul, hip-hop and rhythm and blues.
Among the items owned by Georgians are Curtis Mayfield’s glasses, James Brown’s two-toned loafers and the burgundy tuxedo Bubba Knight wore during his days in Gladys Knight & the Pips. The purple Atlanta Braves hat worn by Outkast’s Big Boi is also exhibited, as is a white pixie wig worn by his bandmate Andre 3000.
More items from Georgia could be on the way.
Lewis said he plans to donate a set of slave shackles and may give the pen President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (The pen Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act a year earlier is already in the museum.)
There’s also a signed copy of King’s first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” that Lewis had lost but eventually found his way back to him 50 years later.
“It will be hard to part with it,” Lewis said. “But I think it belongs.”
Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution archives; Smithsonian Institution archives; Robert Wilkins’ “The Forgotten Museum,” 2002; news reports.
Video: Ask the curators
Video: Erica Hernandez