Bush OKs museum about black history

Law authorizes inclusion as part of Smithsonian

need for funding noted

December 17, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush, in a brief private ceremony yesterday in the Oval Office, signed into law legislation allowing the creation of a National Museum of African-American History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The signing caps a turbulent, nearly century-long quest for such a museum and represents a significant victory for the legislators, business and civic leaders, artists and veterans who have championed the project over several generations.

Despite a lack of fanfare and no public statement from Bush, backers of the museum said the atmosphere surrounding the event was heavy with emotion and historic significance.

"A number of our founders believed that slavery was the original sin of America," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas who sponsored the bill. "Today we repent of that sin. We repent of segregation, of treating one group of people as not equal with others, and we ask for forgiveness and the blessing of reconciliation that will come forth from this."

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who has sponsored legislation for the museum every year since 1988, emerged jubilant from the ceremony. "This has been a long, hard effort, but we're here today," he said. "The whole story, the complete story must be told. Today in America we've moved closer, much closer, to a truly interracial democracy, closer to what Martin Luther King Jr. called `the beloved community.'"

Authorization of the museum could provide a political benefit to the Bush administration in appealing to black voters.

Efforts to build a national structure dedicated to the history and contributions of African-Americans date to a movement started by black Civil War veterans in 1915. After years of racially charged legislative battles over the issue, Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress will be able to claim credit for ushering in final approval.

Advocacy for the museum, advanced over the years by such prominent people as Mary McLeod Bethune, James Baldwin and Jackie Robinson, gained momentum in 2001 when Bush appointed a commission to develop a comprehensive plan for the project. Members of the 23-member panel, 13 of whom were present for the signing, hailed the event as a major milestone. But they also acknowledged it as the beginning of a new phase of challenges.

"It feels like the real work has just begun," said Claudine Brown, vice chairwoman of the commission. "We have to raise money, acquire collections, build the museum. It's the work of a lifetime."

The museum, which planners say could take at least a decade to build, will cost upward of $300 million, half of the money to come from the federal government and half from donors.

Though the Senate and House authorized $17 million for the initial planning of the museum, no money for the project has been included in the appropriations bill for 2004. Smithsonian officials said they would need at least $3.9 million in the first year to select a site for the museum, appoint an advisory council and hire a director.

Lewis said he politely raised the financing issue with Bush at the signing, asking him to back up his symbolic commitment by including money for the museum in his 2005 budget.

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