The Struggles for Rights
Fall/Winter 2013, Vol. 45, No. 3/4
By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States
There's something new and exciting at the National Archives, and it's the first thing you see when you enter the museum side of our National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.
It's our "Records of Rights" exhibit in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery. This new permanent exhibit, the result of years of research and dedicated work by Archives staff, opened in December 2013. The gallery and the exhibit are made possible in part by the Foundation for the National Archives through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group.
"Records of Rights" documents the long struggle that certain segments of our citizenry—African Americans, women, and immigrants—endured before they acquired the full rights granted to white males in the Constitution.
The first document you see in the Rubenstein Gallery is the 1297 Magna Carta, which Rubenstein himself purchased at auction several years ago and which he has graciously put on permanent display with us. It is the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States.
Magna Carta is important to this exhibit because its authors insisted on limits to the power of the English throne just as our Founding Fathers later insisted on limits on the federal government.
Inside the gallery, three areas highlight the stories of each of the groups who fought for their constitutional rights and document their advances and setbacks.
In the section called "Remember the Ladies," you'll see petitions for and against woman suffrage. An assortment of records documents the continuing struggle and culminates with the 19th Amendment giving women the vote and the Equal Rights Amendment, which was never ratified.
In the section on immigration, "Yearning to Breathe Free," the 1860 census schedule for Lowell, Massachusetts, documents the presence of immigrant women "mill hands" from Ireland and Canada. In another encasement, you'll see two originals from the court case of Wong Kim Ark, which went to the Supreme Court and is generally credited with establishing the concept of birthright citizenship as a legal precedent.
In "Bending Towards Justice," which highlights the civil rights journey of African Americans, there are two letters about segregation—on playgrounds and in hotels—each one from a young African American boy to President Harry S. Truman. And you'll find records relating to the service of an African American Revolutionary War veteran, who fought "to obtain his freedom" and was discharged as a free man in1783 by Gen. George Washington.
Another encasement features a Landmark Document, which will change periodically. The first "landmark document" is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. It not only made former slaves citizens, it contained an "equal protection" clause that has been used widely in such diverse areas as interstate commerce and school desegregation.
In all, we now have 13 original documents—including the 14th Amendment and Magna Carta—in the encasements. All of them except Magna Carta will rotate with other originals when the conservators recommend it. Most documents will be on display about six months, although a light-sensitive document might be on display only three months.
In the center of the gallery is something special and exciting.
A large touch-screen table offers a selection of more than 350 Archives documents, photographs and films. Visitors need only tap the screen to find records on topics they're interested in.
The records they can choose from document the struggle of Americans to define, attain, and protect their rights on a wide variety of issues—such as citizenship, free speech, voting rights, and equal opportunity.
Visitors can explore the documents, highlight individual records, react to their stories, and share them with others. They can even continue their exploration online at home with the web version of this table through the website RecordsOfRights.org.
With the Rubenstein Gallery and its new permanent exhibit, visitors to the National Archives Museum will have access to even more of our remarkable holdings. We've improved that access with an elegant new Orientation Plaza, where visitors can get their bearings and plan their visits to the rest of the museum.
Here at the National Archives, we are committed not only to preserving the documentation of the American story but also making it accessible in formats that are engaging and educational, whether on site here or online.
Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.