Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Keeping Our African-American Heritage Alive: A Resolve to Inspire New Generations 

12-09-2015 17:35

I believe deeply in the importance of historic preservation--so that we understand where we are going as a people, as a nation, and as a society. It is important that we all know our history--that the history of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans is remembered and included. Historic preservation must represent every community.

I sponsored the African-American History Landmark Theme Study in Congress to identify key sites in the history and experience of African-Americans. This study was signed into law last year by President Bush. The study mandates that sites, buildings, and structures that illustrate or commemorate African-American history would be evaluated and nominated as National Historical Landmarks and districts. I sponsored this legislation because I believe that the National Park Service lacked adequate minority representation in its programs and historic sites. I believe that we need to increase the number of sites commemorating African-American history and culture and we are making a lot of progress.

I would like to mention some of the exciting recent advances of the National Park Service and Congress. Recently, the House and Senate passed legislation to make the Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas a national historic site to interpret the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Brown v. Board of Education marked a turning point in the long legal struggle to end discrimination. The Brown case turned the tide in the name of justice and fairness. This case changed the course of this country forever. When the Supreme Court issued its historic decision in 1954--people all over America--especially those of us in the South said, "God Almighty has spoken from Washington."

Last year the Mary McLeod Bethune House in Washington was made a part of the National Park System. The NPS completed a study of the March of Selma to Montgomery. The march route will be included in the National Park system as a national historic trail. This is especially important to me because I was honored to lead the march across the Edmund Petis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, on the day that became known as "Bloody Sunday." That day and the events of that day inspired President Lyndon Johnson to speak before Congress and urge the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It inspired Lyndon Johnson to say, and I quote, "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy .... At times history and fate meet at a single time and in a single place to shape a turning point in man`s unending search for freedom." Lyndon Johnson went on to say, "so it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama." And in that speech, over and over again, President Johnson was heard to say, "We shall Overcome." Just think: The highway between Selma and Montgomery, Highway 80-fifty miles of it--will become apart of a national historic trail.

When I talk to people today--especially young people about the importance of voting I tell them about those who fought and those who died for the right to vote. I believe that a national trail that documents history of that march will bring alive the history of the flight for the right to vote and to participate in the democratic process.

When I was in school many, many years ago, I was bussed long distances over unpaved roads, dusty in the summer and muddy in the winter, to attend crowded, poorly staffed segregated schools. White students attended high schools near their homes. Black students went to so-called "training schools."

My roots and the roots of the civil rights movement are humble. It is important that generations unborn be able to see these places that inspired so many to dream. We spent much of our childhood doing back-breaking work in the hot sun and dusty fields. Life growing up in rural Alabama was hard and unforgiving. The signs of discrimination in segregation were everywhere. When I would visit the little town of Troy only about ten miles from my home I saw those signs that said "white waiting," and "colored waiting," "white men," "colored men," "white women," and "colored women."

Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I joined the civil rights movement. I was proud to be a part of the freedom rides, the sit-ins at the lunch counters, the marches for the right to vote. With Dr. King`s leadership we brought about a nonviolent revolution. A revolution of values. A revolution of ideas of America. America is different. America is better. Because this nonviolent movement had the capacity and the ability to bring the dirt and filth out of the cracks, out of the corners and out from under the rug to the open light in order for us to make America whole once more.

I am proud that in the district that I represent, the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia, we have the Martin Luther King, Jr.. National Historic Site and Preservation District. Almost three million people visited the site last year to learn about Dr. King and the movement he inspired. The district includes Sweet Auburn, a street that is famous for its history of black businesses and leadership. The street includes the first black daily newspaper in the country, the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the black-owned and highly successful Atlantic Life Insurance Company, and the Royal Peacock, where Nat King Cole and Cab Calloway, among others, performed.

Not only is the King site the only national site dedicated to the civil rights movement, it is also unique as a living, moving, breathing neighborhood. Many of the homes along the block where Dr. King`s birthplace stands have been restored to their 1930s condition when Dr. King was growing up. These structures are rented out and the residents agree to maintain the homes. The rents are kept reasonable even after restoration.

Sadly, not enough people understand the importance of preserving this history. Much of Auburn Avenue is in need of additional historic preservation. We must save it not just in Atlanta or in Miami or Washington or Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, but we must save it throughout America. Not just for this generation but for the unborn generations.

How wonderful it is for young people, and all people, to walk along Sweet Auburn and see with their own eyes the many accomplishments of black people. Even in times of great adversity, in times of segregation and blatant racism, black men and women of courage are able to survive and prosper.

There`s so much more. For example, the former Rosenwald School in Georgia, which was built in the 1920s for the education of African-Americans that has been restored as a community center and African-American history museum.

Near Savannah, Georgia, a nonprofit group has restored a one room African-American school. It is a powerful and moving experience to watch young black people enter the room and see what life was like in the 1920s and 1930s--how and where black people were educated. Elderly blacks who attended these schools returned and recalled what it was like.

We must preserve and remember how African-Americans were educated even in the 1800s; there are such places as my old school, Fisk University Complex. It is important that we can visit the home of Frederick Douglass, and that we can learn about the Black Women Rights Movement at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women established by Mary McCloud Bethune. Yet it is not enough to walk down Auburn Avenue, which was once known as "the richest Negro street in the world," and see the birthplace of Dr. King and the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he and his father both preached. We must do more. To be able to visit the places, to see them with our own eyes, brings alive the rich and varied history of African-Americans in this country. It helps us to reflect on the distance we have come as a nation and as a people. We are one family in one house: the American house. It is not enough to learn from history or a movie, we must make sure that these precious pieces of our history are preserved.

So I say to you, don`t give up. Keep on doing what you`re doing. You have friends in Congress whether or not I continue to serve on the interior committee. I am still going to be a fighter for historic preservation. It is my desire in the next Congress to seek a seat on the ways and means committee of the House. That would mean I would probably have to give up my seat on the interior committee and on public works. But on the ways and means committee I am going to fight for the tax credits for historic preservation. There may be some setbacks; there may be some disappointments; there may be some interruptions; there may be some delays; but there will be no turning back. We all realize that those of use who live in this country and all of us who live on this planet have an obligation to save it for the next generation.

Publication Date: January/February 1993


Author(s):John Lewis