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National Archives opened gallery brilliantly illuminating struggles for equality

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"Records of Rights"

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The National Archives has opened the David M. Rubenstein Gallery and its permanent exhibition "Records of Rights", vividly bringing to life the past and ever-present struggles of U.S. women, African Americans, and immigrants.

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The gallery and its fascinating interactive exhibit is extremely timely -- the landmark immigration reform bill remains stuck in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last June, and women still fight for equal pay and opportunities.

The entire project, opened in December, was made possible by a gift of $13.5 million from billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, a global alternative asset manager.

The centerpiece is Rubenstein's original 1297 Magna Carta -- America's only original Magna Carta ("great charter") -- which he loaned indefinitely to the National Archives.

The Magna Carta provided the basic rights of democracy, and is the foundation of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. These three "Charters of Freedom" are housed in the Archive's rotunda above the magnificent new Rubenstein gallery.

Rubenstein, at the opening reception, noted that the Magna Carta and our Charters of Freedom were written by, of, and for "white men of property...These words were hollow" for others.

"It's taken 200 years of struggle by women, African Americans, immigrants, and others to make these wonderful principles apply to everybody...the rights have to be for everybody," Rubenstein told the guests, and added, "We need to have more freedoms."

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told guests that the gallery and its exhibit demonstrate "the brilliance, beauty, and strength of our founders", and bring us "closer to our roots...and to the wings of our democracy."

Former Speaker of the House Pelosi, the first woman to serve in that capacity, also issued a "challenge to broaden freedoms and rights in this country."

When I asked her about the current state of rights for women, African Americans, and immigrants, she replied, "It's always a challenge." She stressed, "We took great pride that the first act President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (in Jan. 2009, represented in the Records of Rights exhibit) ... and the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, we don't agree with."

Rep. Pelosi added, "It's so important to showcase all these documents to show where these rights began, and to encourage people to see their roots and to spread their own wings."

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who also attended the opening, told me later, "The exhibit is well conceived and wonderfully presented." The Senate's most senior member added, "It's a powerful way for us to better understand the origins of our ideals, and the struggles to bring our ideals more fully into reality for all Americans."

These roots, ideals, and struggles are exemplified and personalized in the exhibit's original documents, photographs, videos, letters, and drawings. They're organized in three sections:

  • "Bending Towards Justice", named for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s frequent quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
  • "Remembering the Ladies" based on Abigail Adams' famed admonition to her husband John Adams and the Continental Congress in 1776, "Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors."
  • "Yearning to Breathe Free", taken from Emma Lazarus' poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty, "...Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free..."

Here are just a few highlights of this must-see exhibit:

  • "Bending Towards Justice"

This section encompasses the beginning of slavery, emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights era, to the present.

-- George Washington's signature is on the original 1783 discharge papers of a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War in order to gain his freedom.

-- The original 15th Amendment that granted African American men the right to vote was ratified in 1870.

-- The original Voting Rights Act of 1965, almost a century later, that was to have enabled exercising that basic right.

"The right is established, but trying to exercise it is very, very difficult," this section's curator, National Archives historian Michael Hussey, told me. "Sometimes, change comes very, very slowly." He could have been speaking for all of these sections.

One "heartbreaking and heartening pairing," Hussey said, concerns Florida's NAACP head Henry T. Moore, who led voting registration efforts that registered 100,000 African Americans. On Christmas night 1951, a bomb under his house exploded, killing him and his wife. Framed beside this news item is one of hundreds of slips saying "MURDER MUST BE PUNISHED", sent to the Justice Department. The bombing was never solved, Hussey commented.

-- Two letters to President Harry Truman from young white schoolchildren questioning the morality of segregation are especially touching, and should inspire the many young people who need to see this entire exhibit.

-- The civil rights era is dramatically represented also by Rosa Parks' fingerprints, taken during her 1955 arrest for refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man. That sparked the 381-day Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott, ignited awareness throughout the country, and earned Parks the title "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."

-- A letter from a white woman in Brooklyn urging her congressman, "For God sakes, help those poor innocent people in Selma..." She was referring to the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, where Alabama state troopers beat protesters and almost killed young activist John Lewis. Now an elder statesman, Lewis has served as a U.S. Representative from Georgia for a quarter-century, and is the only living speaker from the March on Washington 50 years ago.

  • "Remembering the Ladies"

This section demonstrates "ways American women're treated differently because of their gender," National Archives curator Jennifer Johnson told me.

For much of America's history, "women did not own their bodies, their wages, or -- in the event of a divorce -- even their children," the wall text notes.

-- "The women's suffrage story is really great," noted Johnson, who curated this section. "Today, arguments against it seem silly, but they were very strong, and especially bitter from women." One of the letters from a women's group maintains that female suffrage would "create an official endorsement of nagging."

Johnson added, "If this exhibit inspires women to vote, that makes me happy."

-- Far lesser known: until the early 20th century, if an American woman married a foreigner, she lost her citizenship, and could regain it only if her husband divorced her or died. And then -- she had to apply for citizenship! Some "Repatriation oaths" are displayed.

-- "The passionate debate about equal pay continues, as we know, even after the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter law," Johnson commented. "The first bill for equal pay was introduced in 1944."

Until the Equal Credit Act of 1974, women had difficulties obtaining a mortgage or credit on her own. When applying for a loan, "they could be asked about their intent to bear children, and their birth control practices."

Even tennis star Billie Jean King, who supported her husband on her substantial winnings, could not get a credit card in her own name. Photographs of her, suffragists, anti-equality leader Phyllis Schlafly, and Emily Bloomer enliven the section.

-- The Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced 90 years ago Dec. 13, 1923, passed almost 50 years later. However, it fell three states short of the 38 states needed to ratify it to be added to the Constitution, and died in 1982.

(Abortion rights -- as inflammatory as ever 40 years after the 1973 Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion -- are skipped over. Native American rights are not highlighted, except for a wall quote by Chief Josef of the Nez Perce, "The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.")

  • Yearning to Breathe Free

America's ever-contradictory attitudes toward immigrants are represented stunningly here. The welcoming is symbolized by the colorful, elegant 1884 Statue of Liberty Deed of Gift. But much of this display focuses on excluding immigrants, like numerous quotas, or limiting rights of newcomers.

-- The notorious Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas by nationality. "People from the Western hemisphere were exempt."

The exhibit, curated by National Archives senior curator Bruce Bustard, shows that "in the 1920s, some three million members of the Ku Klux Klan targeted recent immigrants as well as African Americans." A hateful letter is written on the elaborate letterhead of "Women of the Ku Klux Klan"-- Some of the most powerful parts are videos of Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans (many in sombreros), and other nationality immigrants entering America.

-- An especially disturbing video shows the evacuation and relocation of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans after the U.S. declared war on Japan in 1941.

And what about David Rubenstein's ancestors?

"My grandfather came here in a boat in 1910...from the Ukraine, where there were anti-Jewish activities," he told me.

The benefactor said he wants his gallery and its exhibit, to help "American citizens see and understand the struggles of so many people to get these rights. We have to preserve them. Obviously, this has always been an ongoing struggle."

For more info: David M. Rubenstein Gallery, www.archives.gov/nae/visit/rubenstein-gallery.html, National Archives, www.archives.gov, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, D.C. "Records of Rights" website, www.recordsofrights.org.

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