- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

It has been said that ours is the only nation deliberately founded on the idea that human beings must be free because they are equal before God, and endowed with inalienable rights. This idea has shaped our nations history and institutions and made the United States synonymous with human rights and individual liberty around the world.
One of the most important chapters in our national story of human freedom and dignity is the history and legacy of the African American march toward freedom, legal equality and full participation in American society. Yet in our nations front yard, the National Mall, there is no museum set aside to honor this legacy. We believe it is time for Congress and the president to fill this gap by creating a museum that tells the story of African American history and culture.
The breadth of the African American diaspora spans over 400 turbulent and glorious years. From the darkest days of slavery to the modern civil rights movement, African Americans have often led this country in the important work of fulfilling our national promise of equal rights under the law often sacrificing their own lives and liberty along the way. Every American, white, black, Hispanic, and Asian, owes a debt of gratitude toward those brave men and women who led this fight.
In addition to chronicling the struggle for full civil rights, a museum is needed to celebrate other aspects of the African American legacy. African Americans contributions in the areas of science, medicine, the arts and humanities, sports, music and dance have helped in an important way to shape our culture and inspire our people. This, too, is part of the story that must be told.
Where the story is told is as important as the story itself. Our legislation creates the National Museum of African American History and Culture inside the Smithsonian Institute and calls for its location on or near the National Mall. It will draw upon experts in African American history and culture to participate in the design of the museum and the collection of artifacts to be displayed.
Already we have garnered support for this legislation from a broad base of national African American organizations and individuals who are committed to this project, ranging from the Congressional Black Caucus to the African American Museum Association to the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
As proposed, the museum would be housed in an existing building within the Smithsonian complex, thus giving it the place of prominence it deserves without raising the complicated issue of additional construction on the National Mall. Another important aspect of this project lies in its financing.
It would be easy in an era of burgeoning surpluses simply to have the federal government pick up the tab. Our belief, however, is that in a project of national importance like this, financial participation should be as broad as possible. The legislation calls for the federal government to provide one-third of the funding with the remainder coming from private sources. Our hope is that millions of Americans, from corporate leaders to school children, will join in making the museum their own.
This legislation is not a cure-all for the problem of racial division. It is, however, an important and productive step toward healing our nations racial wounds. Martin Luther King Jr. once expressed hope that "the deep fog of misunderstanding" which has long been a part of race relations in the United States would one day be lifted. A national museum devoted to African American history and culture will help to lift this cloud.

Rep. John Lewis is a Democrat from Georgia, Sen. Sam Brownback is a Republican from Kansas, Sen. Max Cleland is a Democrat from Georgia and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. is a Republican from Oklahoma.


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