WASHINGTON — Student organizer John Lewis made history in August 1963 when he, at 23, was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, where the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Today, at 71, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is a keeper of history, a lawmaker whose fingerprints are on some of the nation's most significant tributes and monuments to the contributions of African-Americans to American culture.
"I think it's important for people to know the whole story and the full story of America for generations yet unborn," Lewis said. He's the sole surviving speaker from the Aug. 28, 1963, march. "It's important to leave these museums, these little pieces of history, to inspire, inform and educate unborn generations."
Lewis, a civil rights icon who was badly beaten during marches and demonstrations in the 1960s, co-wrote the legislation that authorized the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which opened in August and will be dedicated officially Sunday.
Lewis, along with the late Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, and the late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., introduced a resolution in 1986 to encourage and support private efforts to build the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
Congress launched the African-American museum project in 2003 when it passed a bipartisan bill sponsored by Lewis and former Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both of whom have since left the Senate.
Legislation crafted by Lewis also led to the highway that runs from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama — the route of the 1965 Voting Rights March — becoming part of the National Historic Trail system.
In addition, Lewis chaired a congressional task force that led to the prominent placement of two plaques in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to acknowledge the role of slave labor in the construction of the Capitol building. The federal government rented the slaves from their owners in Maryland and Virginia.
"He's come to symbolize the will of what just one member (of Congress) can do in keeping the story alive and telling it to the American people," John Franklin said of Lewis. Franklin is the son of the late African-American historian John Hope Franklin and the director of partnerships and international programs for the Smithsonian African-American museum. "He helps people walk in the footsteps of history," Franklin said.
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