Whenever Congress spins its wheels over legislation involving matters of race, you can usually bet that Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina is doing most of the stalling. This time, Helms is vehemently and ignorantly opposing _ again _ a decade-old proposal to build an African-American museum on the National Mall.
Since the mid 1980s, supporters inside and outside Congress have worked to establish the museum in the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institution. Unsurprisingly, Helms has been the museum's most outspoken opponent. He has demanded answers to a succession of irrelevant financial and philosophical questions and used other vote-delaying tactics to deny what would be a rich addition to the Smithsonian account of American history.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., reintroduced the legislation in February, which was Black History Month, to highlight the need and importance of such a museum. Sens. Paul Simon, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a similar measure in March. The legislation enjoys widespread bipartisan support in Congress, including that of both of Florida's senators, Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Bob Graham.
"African-American history is an integral part of our country," says Lewis, adding that the current version of American history is incomplete. "Our history must be told in its entirety."
Helms argues that the museum would duplicate other exhibits that chronicle the history of blacks in America, but museum supporters say existing exhibits are inadequate. Steven Newsome, director of the National African American Museum Project, says the museum would house permanent and changing displays including artwork and historical and cultural exhibits.
"Our primary goal is to educate the entire American public about the contributions of African-Americans to our country's history," Newsome says. "We want to show the points where black history intersects with the history of all of America."
Helms says he worries that the federal government will end up footing the bill for the new museum, which is expected to cost between $20- and $40-million. Supporters say the money will come from private donors, not federal funds, but that fund-raising cannot start until Congress approves.
Supporters have taken several steps to save money. The museum effort would convert an existing collection, the African American Museum Project, into a permanent display. The exhibits will be housed in an already constructed building instead of in a newly built one. And collections will be phased in rather than being acquired all at once.
Helms' objections come as no surprise. The museum legislation is just the most recent in decades of government attempts to give blacks the same treatment as their white countrymen _ and Helms has opposed them all. Given that benighted history, it's difficult to take Helms' questions seriously this time.
A permanent African-American museum that could inform and inspire all Americans is long overdue. Congress should dismiss Helms' petty parliamentary tricks and act to acknowledge black Americans' integral place in our history and culture.