A GROUP OF BLACK CIVIL WAR VETERANS first proposed a national museum for African-Americans in 1915. Various efforts fell flat in the coming decades, even as Congress in 1989 approved construction of the National Museum of the American Indian (it opened in 2004).
Beginning in 1988, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., took up the mantle for African-Americans. In every Congress for 13 years he filed legislation to authorize a museum, but no bill ever made it to the president’s desk—most often due to staunch opposition from late segregationist Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina.
In 1996 Lewis gained a key ally when Kansas sent Republican Sam Brownback, an outspoken Christian, to the U.S. Senate. After Brownback visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, he said he was praying about racial reconciliation when the idea of an African-American museum took root.
“It was an inspiration,” Brownback told me. “I thought: ‘We need to do that with slavery. Have something so striking to people that we’d say, ‘Never again.’”
Brownback was unaware of Lewis’ prior efforts, but the two soon connected and started to work: Brownback gathered support in the Republican-controlled Senate, while Lewis and former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., did the same in the Republican-controlled House. In December 2003—11 months after Helms left office—Bush signed the bill into law.
Bush’s successor, then a state senator from Illinois and later the nation’s first black president, ultimately christened the museum. In keynote remarks at its opening, President Obama called it a necessary museum for all Americans.
Lewis told CBS News he had to hold back tears as he walked through the building for the first time: “So many of the exhibits, so much in this museum, remind me of the struggle that we went through to get legislation passed and get it signed into law.”