Fifteen years ago, civil rights activist and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took over the effort to get legislation passed to establish a National Museum of African American History and Culture, and fought for it every year since — on the day of the museum’s official opening, here were his remarks:
“President and Mrs. Obama; Vice President Biden; Dr. Jill Biden; President and Mrs. Bush, President Clinton, Mr. Chief Justice, and members of the Board of Regents, to the Museum Advisory Council; Secretary David Skorton; and Dr. Lonnie Bunch. To the leadership of the United States Congress and all of my colleagues in both the house and senate; in memory of the late Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas; the architects of this incredible building; and to all of the staff of the White House, the federal agencies, the Congress, the Smithsonian, who pushed and pulled together to make this moment happen; and to all of the construction companies and their crews; I say thank you.
Thank you for all you did to help lead our society to this magnificent day. As long as there is a United States of America, now there will be a National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was a great achievement. I tell you, I feel like singing the song, the Mahalia Jackson song, from the March on Washington over 50 years ago: ‘How we got over; how we got over.’ There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said, ‘you can’t do it.’ But we did it. We did it.
We are gathered here today to dedicate a building, but this place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.
You and I. Each and every one of us were caught up in a seed of light. We were a vision born in the minds of black Civil War veterans and their supporters. They met right here in Washington, D.C., in 1916., exactly 100 years ago at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, still in existence today. Oh say, oh say: See what a dream can do. Roll up the sleeves of those veterans or touch the rubble on their backs — you might find the wounds of shackles and whips. Most could not read the Declaration of Independence or write their own names. But in their hearts — burning, enduring vision of true democracy that no threat or death could ever erase.
They understood the meaning of their contribution. They set a possibility in motion, passing down through the ages from heart to heart and breath to breath. That we are giving birth today to this museum is a testament to the dignity of the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom. It is a song to the scholars and scribes; scientists and teachers; to the revolutionaries, and the voices of protest; to the ministers in the office of peace. It is a story of life, the story of our lives, wrapped up in a beautiful golden crown of grace.
I can hear the distant voice of ancestors whispering by the night fire: ‘Steal away, steal away home, ain’t got long to stay here.’ A big bold choir shouting, ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.’ All of the voices roaming, for centuries, have finally found a home here in this great monument to our pain, our suffering, and our victory.
When I was a little child growing up in rural Alabama, a short walk to the cotton fields, but hundreds of miles from Washington, from the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, my teachers would tell us to cut out of pictures of great African Americans for Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week, now called African American History Month. I became inspired by the stories of George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, and so many others whose life and work would be enshrined in this museum.
As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired, filled with a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideals of justice, equality and true democracy. Thank you.”