01 Feb 2002 Conservative Outreach to Black America Should Not Be Spurned, by Rita Thompson
There’s something more to celebrate during this year’s Black History Month observance. The dream of a Smithsonian Institution museum celebrating the lives, accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans is closer to becoming a reality. President George W. Bush signed legislation on December 28 to establish the location of the museum and the means of supporting it.
This is big news not just because we are getting some long overdue recognition, but also because conservatives brought this dream closer to a reality.
After the racially divisive 2000 presidential campaign, when candidate Bush received less than 10 percent of the black vote, it would have been easy for conservatives to write off Black America. As a race, we seemed to offer no political value, so depriving us of a seat at the governing table could be justified. Thankfully, this cynical scenario never occurred.
To the contrary, the Bush White House is surprisingly open to our concerns even though so many of us turned our back on him. Bush recently reaffirmed his commitment to minority higher education during this time of economic belt-tightening when he announced that funding for historically minority black colleges would rise by 30 percent by 2005.
Then there’s the museum. The National Mall in Washington, DC is already home to a special Smithsonian museum dedicated to the Holocaust, and another currently under construction will focus on Native Americans. Since 1988, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) has struggled to add to the Smithsonian collection a museum dedicated to the achievements of African-Americans. He celebrated some small victories, but his bill never made it to the President’s desk.
The goal of establishing a national museum about the African-American experience has long been an elusive one. Activist Richard Smith III discovered this in 1997 when he lobbied Congress for a slavery museum. The Washington City Paper described his futile efforts. “After a few tries, [Smith] says, he learned the drill: ‘pat on the head, a shuffle of feet and out the door you go.'”
The struggle changed in 2001. Conservatives embraced the idea of a Black History museum. Representative Lewis found an eager and willing Senate co-sponsor in conservative Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). It’s not often that bills are co-sponsored by conservatives like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and ardent liberals like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), but, for this cause, lawmakers from across the political spectrum came together. The alliance worked. Even in the chaotic post-9/11 Congress, the bipartisan legislation quickly passed through the House and Senate.
A commission comprised of 23 museum specialists and individuals “committed to the research and study of African-American life, art, history and culture” is now tasked with figuring out where to put the new Black History museum, learning what exhibits they can find to put into it and determining how the new museum might impact regional African-American museums. The commission has a $3 million budget and a year to complete their study.
Why did conservatives jump on the bandwagon to build an African-American museum, providing the strength necessary to finally move it forward? As a black conservative involved in the campaign, perhaps I can provide some insight. First of all, conservatives want to spotlight the contributions blacks have made to America. The history of Black America is unique because so many of our forefathers were brought here in chains. The elders of our community lived in segregation, and we still must tolerate a degree of prejudice from certain quarters. Despite these challenges, we’ve survived and succeeded. Conservatives agree this rich history and the lessons it provides deserves recognition.
Conservatives value freedom, and that is why this museum is appealing. Our freedom was restricted, and a threat to one man’s freedom is a threat to everyone’s freedom. All of America must recognize these past mistakes so they are not repeated in the future. And that is why a museum about the history of Black Americans should be a place of solemn reflection and celebration and not a platform for finger-pointing.
While we celebrate our history, we should celebrate our renewed partnership with our conservative allies. When only 10 percent of the black population supported them in the 2000 presidential election, they did not become vindictive and they are doing the right thing and supporting the museum. Let’s find a way to work with them to bring this part of history forward.
(Rita Thompson is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.