WASHINGTON — No one was more instrumental in shepherding the legislation that created the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Capitol Hill than Georgia Rep. John Lewis.
It took the Atlanta Democrat 15 years to get the bill through Congress (you can read up on the museum’s 100-year history here), but the civil rights icon got his wish granted Saturday when he got to sit behind President Barack Obama as he dedicated the museum in front of a packed crowd on the National Mall.
Shortly after 11 a.m., Lewis gave a powerful six-minute speech about the museum and its significance that was met with a standing ovation. Here’s a transcript:
“President and Mrs. Obama, President and Mrs. Bush, 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 U.S. Congress, and all my colleagues in both the House and Senate… in memory of the late Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas…To the City of the District of Columbia, the architects of this incredible building…. to all the staff of the White House, the federal agencies, the Congress, the Smithsonian who pushed and pulled together to help make this moment happen, and to all the construction companies and their crews–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 is a great achievement.
I tell you I feel like singing the song Mahalia Jackson sung at the March on Washington over 50 years ago, “How We Got Over”. There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said “You can’t do it”, but we did.
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, DC, in 1916, exactly 100 years ago, at 19th Street Baptist Church, still in existence today. Oh say! See what a dream can do!
If you could 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 even write their names, but in their hearts burned an enduring vision of true democracy that no threat of death could ever erase. They understood the meaning of their contribution, and they set a possibility in motion–passed down through the ages from heart to heart and breath to breath–that we are giving birth to today.
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 voices of protest, to the ministers and the authors of peace. It is the story of life, the story of our lives, wrapped up in a beautiful golden crown of grace.
I can hear the distant voice of our ancestors whispering by the night fire, “Steal away, Steal away home. We ain’t got time to stay here”. Or a big, bold choir shouting, “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” All their voices–roaming for centuries–have finally found their 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 the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, my teachers would tell us to cut out photographs 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 will 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 worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideals of justice, equality and a true democracy. Thank you.”