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Exhibit Explores U.S. History of 'Rights' Versus 'Privileges'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll glimpse into the mind of a sociopath. We'll hear from an author who says she is a sociopath, but your assumptions about people like her might be completely off-base. That's in a few minutes.

First, we want to focus on a new exhibit coming to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. This exhibit tells the story of the battle for human rights in the United States for women, for minorities and for immigrants. The exhibit is called "The Record of Rights." It opens later this year. Joining me now to talk about it is one of the museum curators. Jennifer Johnson, thanks so much for being here with us.

JENNIFER JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: This a big story. I mean, I would imagine editing the exhibit down is probably the biggest challenge, right?

JOHNSON: Exactly. There are so many stories in our holdings to be told. And once we had the opportunity, with the generosity of David Rubenstein with his donation, to make this new gallery, we knew we wanted to continue the story that we start in our rotunda, which is where the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are on display.

And we wanted to take those documents, which are icons of human liberty, and tell the story of what happened after those were drafted and the founding fathers...

HEADLEE: So post-1776.

JOHNSON: Post-1776. Correct.

HEADLEE: So tell me about one or two really, really cool pieces, artifacts that are going to be in this exhibit.

JOHNSON: Some of my favorites are letters that we're going to have on display that were written by children. And they were written to President Truman in the late 1940s, basically voicing their concerns about segregation. One, from an 11-year-old named Jay Tagliaru (ph), states that he was very upset because he witnessed 51 children being denied entry into a Washington, D.C. hotel because four of the children were black. And he even drew pictures on the letter, illustrating what he thought his vision of a better society could be and he asked President Truman to do something about it.

HEADLEE: What about something else? What is an artifact that gives us a different perspective on human rights in the country?

JOHNSON: There, I would have to go to repatriation oaths. It's a little-known chapter of our history that, in 1907, Congress passed an act stating that women who married a foreigner would lose their citizenship status, 'cause at the time, women's citizenship was tied to marriage or to their father.

And it wasn't until 1922 that that act was reversed. And before that, if women wanted to repatriate, which they could only do after death of their husband or through divorce, they had to fill out a form, which was called a repatriation oath, and pledge allegiance to the U.S. again.

HEADLEE: What's your most recent piece that will be in the exhibit, do you think?

JOHNSON: We definitely go up through President Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. We have a photo in the exhibit of him signing that and that was in - signed in January of 2009. I think the great thing about our records is that even though we have records dating from 1880s and from the early 20th century, the issues are still very much alive and we still talk about them today.

HEADLEE: But what story do you want someone to leave the exhibit with? I mean, you want them to be thinking, what?

JOHNSON: Just to start a dialogue about rights, and everyone has different views about what rights mean or what rights we should have. And so this exhibit kind of explores how citizens and even noncitizens, immigrants, have agitated or used the founding documents, the Constitution and the words that are in that, to push for rights that were guaranteed to them, but maybe not paved yet.

HEADLEE: Do you answer that question of what is a right and what is a privilege?

JOHNSON: We don't. We try not to. In fact, we just kind of put it out there for visitors to absorb and then let themselves ask themselves what they think about it. And in the very end, if they leave talking about what they saw and then connect that to anything that maybe they're seeing in today's news stories or events going on in the Supreme Court or rulings being talked about, then we think we've done - we've done our job.

For instance, in our area called Yearning to Breathe Free, which talks about immigrant struggles over the last several decades and even centuries, we have a document called the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882. And then we have a document that is the deed for the Statue of Liberty, which was given in 1884.

And those two documents are kind of the opposing ideals of what we - of what our country was striving for in immigration.

HEADLEE: Give us your poor, your tired, and hungry...

JOHNSON: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...But not the Chinese.

JOHNSON: So we kind of put those together, just to let people think about these opposing ideals that we still talk about today and we're still debating today. We - rights were debated before day one of this country's founding. The Founding Fathers struggled with this and we continue to do so up to present day.

HEADLEE: Jennifer Johnson, museum curator at the National Archives. She joined us in our Washington studios. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.