At a tribute dinner on Monday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) recalled growing up in rural Alabama and how, at one time, the public library denied him from borrowing books. One of the national leaders of the civil rights movement, Lewis also said he remembers his motivation for participating in sit-ins, marches and protests in the 1960s.
“It was embedded in me that you have to stand up and speak out,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ experience of growing up in the 1950s and ’60s was among a number of stories told during a tribute dinner to the civil rights generation that featured a discussion among 19 renowned blacks in business, politics, academia, the media and the arts.
Sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the AARP, the dinner was held to commemorate the first-year anniversary of the death of Coretta Scott King, wife of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It also celebrated last year’s announcement of the future site for the museum, adjacent to the Washington Monument and across the street from the National Museum of American History.
“We had a desire, as part of the creation of the museum, to do a program that demonstrates how the museum exists even without the building,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture who served as moderator for the discussion.
Held on Capitol Hill, the event was taped as part of a two-hour documentary, “Legacy,” to be broadcast on PBS in February 2008. “Legacy” will feature parts of the dinner along with profiles of dinner participants and stories of the civil rights generation.
“Legacy” is the third in a series of dinner documentaries called The Millennium Dinners. Produced by Richard Karz, previous dinner documentaries include one about the women’s movement and one that analyzed New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
According to Bunch, the goal of the documentaries is to use the 21st century as a time to assess where the country is.
Along with Lewis, other participants in Monday’s dinner included Dorothy Height, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women; Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Deborah Roberts, a correspondent for ABC.
“As years go by, we have a younger generation who walk through doors, and they don’t know how they got there,” Height said.
Discussion at the dinner table centered on how the civil rights movement personally affected the lives of the participants and how race continues to shape their lives and the nation today.
Bunch said there are conversations about race taking place in private settings every day.
“What we wanted to do was to bring smart and dedicated people and let the conversation be public,” Bunch said. “We wanted to stimulate the American public to remember the importance of this movement, through conversation and how do we continue to make America better.”
Roger Wilkins, a journalist and professor of history and American culture at George Mason University, spoke about how pervasive segregation was in Missouri, where he grew up. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College in Atlanta, said her father was not allowed to attend graduate school in Florida because he was black.
Along with memories of the civil rights movement, participants brought up questions on how younger generations can use the lessons of the past to affect the future.
“The question for young people today is what’s the conditions that will make young black people understand a legacy of forward momentum?” said Chuck D, activist and member of the hip-hop group Public Enemy.
Participants also reflected on the dynamics of race relations in America and the problems facing black communities today. Bunch said the discussion focused on the problems with education, fairness of the health care system and breaking the “pipeline” that brings many black males to prison.
Bunch said that at the end of the discussion, participants stressed the importance of history and realizing that is a continuing struggle.
“Even with the presence of [Sen. Barack] Obama (D-Ill.) and Oprah [Winfrey] and other people, that’s just the tip of the iceberg and the struggle continues,” Bunch said.