In a quiet, sun-splashed corner of a reception room, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) stood away from the crowds and the noise of the hundreds assembled to celebrate breaking ground for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

But one by one, people — a television commentator, a social service administrator, an elderly man with stories to tell — came over to thank him.

Each well-wisher knew that this day would not have happened without him. For years, Lewis was the lead voice in Congress championing the museum’s creation, one of the many battles he has fought over his 55 years of civil rights service.

“This groundbreaking . . . is a testament to the power of never giving up,” Lewis said as he stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

He sought to deflect attention from himself, saying: “Sometimes great things just happen, and we can’t explain it.”

Here’s the reality: Lewis’s efforts to develop the museum began almost as soon as he got to Congress in 1987. He introduced legislation 15 years in a row, overcoming skepticism from a legion of members, none more so than Jessie Helms (R), the former North Carolina senator, who filibustered the bill so it could not come up for a vote.

The effort to develop an African American history museum on the Mall dates back nearly 100 years, when a group of black Civil War veterans proposed that a memorial to the African American struggle be constructed there.

Lewis took up the mantle in the late 1980s and is often pointed to as the one who brought warring sides in Congress together.

“This is part of his legacy, his mission,” said longtime friend and confidant House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). “He’s human, so of course I saw him discouraged, but he never admitted to failure.”

Lewis is in the midst of a primary challenge to continue representing Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. So he spends a lot of time back home and flew in just for Wednesday’s ceremony. The day started like many others: up at 5 a.m. for breakfast and staff meetings. But something about it felt familiar, and historic, even though his life has been captured in paintings, documentaries, books and countless media coverage.

“It reminds me of the morning of the March on Washington,” said Lewis, who turned 72 on Tuesday. “I was a little anxious, optimistic and hopeful, wondering how it all is going to turn out.”

Lewis sat onstage, received extended applause and gave a rousing speech.

“What we witnessed today will go down in history,” he said, thanking several of the members of Congress who helped him fight for the museum. “It is the substance of things hoped for and the validation of our dreams.”

Close friends and associates of the veteran congressman said that the museum’s opening is another point along Lewis’s historical continuum that began in 1958, when he thought about trying to integrate Troy State as a teenager. Lewis attended Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, instead.

“Eleanor . . . thank you,” Lewis said to longtime friend Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) as she stopped to give him a hug and kiss on the cheek prior to the groundbreaking ceremony.

“It’s not quite free at last, John, but almost,” she replied.

Norton said that Lewis will be one of the few living people who will be able to see his life chronicled in the museum. “He was the right person to carry this mantle for the same reason he became chairman of [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. The students looked around and saw he was a leader. He was the drum major and never stopped marching.”