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But I just still to this day, don't really know what we did. I guess we had to. I thought we had to prepare things, but to use books and like have dossiers with us. I got a question for you. You can find out the answer in the break that comes in this podcast. But this is one that you can try and look up using your Vodafone Unlimited data. I'd Professor Bartlett on the podcast the other day, and he's identified 27 female monarchs in medieval Europe, 27 queen pregnant women actually ruled in their own right in medieval Europe, but none of them were from Ireland.
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Hi, everybody. Welcome to Dan Snow's history hit this week. In 1963, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It was a call for civil economic rights, assault and racism in the United States of America. We commissioned several shows on history at both TV and audio to mark this anniversary and to also mark the renewed calls for those civil and political rights following the death of George Floyd and others in the United States.
We've got a documentary on history here on the history of policing in the US, and this podcast is an interview with the excellent Christopher Wilson. He's a director at the National Museum of American History. He's director Experience Design, African-American History Program.
And this is one of the live history hits that we do on YouTube, on Timeline. Check them out. If you do want to go and watch that police and documentary on history hit TV, please head over there. Use the code pod one 151 one and you get a month for free and you get the second of just one pound euro dollar. That's a pretty sweet deal. So head over and do that. In the meantime, everybody enjoy the excellent Christopher Wilson.
Chris, thank you for joining us. Thank you. That's wonderful to be here today. Thank you for having me on.
Let's start with this discussion about the civil rights movement into the 60s by giving a like a very brief history, if you may, of what happened really between that moment when slaves were freed all the way down in Galveston up until the 1960s because Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King didn't suddenly invent the struggle for emancipation. It had been it had been a battle fiercely contested. That's a really good point. Historians are starting to talk about the civil rights movement as more of a long civil rights movement as opposed to we generally think of that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King initiation of the 1950s and 60s movement and think of it as a Montgomery to Memphis story, the Montgomery bus boycott in nineteen fifty five to King's assassination and in Memphis in nineteen sixty eight or even earlier to the Voting Rights Act in nineteen sixty five.
We think of it is that that 10 year period. But that black freedom struggle really began as long at the beginning of the lack of freedom. So during so there were black and white abolitionists working for formal emancipation and abolition during the period of slavery. Also abolitionists in the sense of people like Frederick Douglass before he became an orator, freeing themselves. As I as I mentioned, African-Americans were trying to end slavery either personally or collectively during its period. And then that abolition movement really became a freedom and civil rights movement in the late 19th, in the 19th century, through the reconstruction period and into the late 19th century.
What the case, the Supreme Court case that was that eventually was overturned by the Brown versus Board of Education, Supreme Court case that ended desegregation in the public schools in the United States in 1954. The Supreme Court case that they were working to overturn was the Plessy versus Ferguson case in the 80s, 90s, and that case was initiated by Homer Plessy doing a very similar act as Rosa Parks eventually did, refusing to give up a seat and test on a streetcar and testing laws that enforced public enforced segregation in public public proceeding.
So that was really a movement that had begun at that point. You know, after the end of after emancipation, people started testing, well, what will freedom really mean? And started pushing the boundaries of that definition.
And is that where the NAACP come in and are testing out through the courts and pushing on pushing on the pushing on some of those deeply restrictive and recidivist practices?
Exactly. So people like WBB Dubois working to found the NAACP in that period are working on several fronts. And so and that's, I think, one of the things that we have to understand about even the nineteen fifties and sixties civil rights movement that people were working on many different fronts. At the same time, there was not one monolithic type of movement in a particular time. And then to switch to another tactic a few years later. But many people were trying many different tactics all at once.
The NAACP certainly began the legal work at the in the early part of the 20th century. But at the same time, people like Dubois were working with more or less publicity, things like the new Negro Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, working to change the way African-Americans are viewed. If he felt we could have great achievement in art and literature and other expressions, even sports, the Harlem Rens basketball team and the Harlem Globetrotters and so forth, starting at that time, if we could be use those avenues to be seen as human, then then things would change and things would be better.
So there were all of those tactics were being used really at the same time. But yes, the NAACP began in earnest a process to test the laws, particularly around school segregation.
So so I want to talk more about the sort of transition, if you like, from testing those laws to taking direct action after we actually talk more about those laws, the so-called Jim Crow laws. We've got to we've got a clip from a time line documentary, fascinating documentary, explaining just what those laws were.
More than troops withdrew from the south, the states enacted Jim Crow laws to keep blacks in their place. These laws made sure that blacks and whites did not have to come into close public contact facilities such as public bathrooms, water fountains, seating areas on buses, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and schools.
Every public necessity and service in the South was segregated and seemingly designed to make blacks feel inferior. It was common to see signs that read for colored or white use only. These laws were considered fair and constitutional for many years.
However, the reality of segregation was far from fair. It was profoundly destructive, emotionally and psychologically. So there you can see some just visually the impact of some of those laws, the segregation that was enforced on communities across those southern states. Christopher Wilson, back with you, the historian of civil rights and and curator at the Smithsonian. Can you tell me what was the what was the impact of these of these laws on the lives of African-Americans in those states?
They were infuriating and debilitating and and oftentimes sometimes they were laws, sometimes. There were laws, sometimes there were customs, but all of them were really intended not only to separate people and to do what they sort of functionally did and keep people from using drinking fountains. And we had an exhibition at the Smithsonian about the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case. And we had the opening of the exhibition was a listing of many of those laws, and they went all the way to the ridiculous of blacks and whites, couldn't play checkers and so forth.
But in addition to just the fact of the law, there is the there is the impact and the way that they were they were meted out, for instance, in Montgomery, Alabama, in the Rosa Parks case, in the Montgomery bus boycott situation there, the laws were not only just to separate people, but to just enforce an ideal of white supremacy. So in Montgomery, not only could have been generally well known, the blacks couldn't sit in the front of the bus and sit in their own section.
But it was really more worse than that. Blacks had to pay at the front of the bus, get off and go to the back entrance of the bus, because not only couldn't they sit with white people in the front, they couldn't walk past them. After they paid their fare. They there was because more black people rode the bus than white people. There was a section in the middle that was a very section. And that section was blacks could sit there until there were enough whites to fill up the white section and need to move back and take another row, which is what happened when Rosa Parks was arrested.
And so that those sort of things like the in fact, at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, folks were really Coretta Scott King says this, that they were really initially working only for a more humane system of desegregation, of segregation, and not really because they didn't feel like there was any chance to get rid of segregation entirely. They thought, let's at least make it more humane.
It's funny you talking about the pettiness and the detail of these laws, and it makes me think that I always think racist people have made these laws. But these laws also made people racists.
I mean, of course, how would you if you were in that system, that institution, you would look upon the other as as something.
Well, a with huge difference, wouldn't you? Well, exactly. The many of the folks that I have spoken to who have been a major part of the civil rights movement, folks like the Greensboro Four who began the sit in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's lunch counter, said those laws and the entire atmosphere made them feel not only angry but suicidal by the time they were children.
But Frank McCain said when he was 12 or 13 years old, he felt suicidal because of all of this weight that was coming down on him by everything around him that told him he was less than everyone else and reinforced that constantly.
You mentioned one of the remarkable things about your career. You've interviewed a huge swath of these activists, Rosa Parks, Congressman John Lewis, Diane Nash. That is. Well, just try and if you can give give us a summary, some of them. Let's start with Rosa Parks, internationally famous. My kids here in the UK study her school. What was that like meeting her and hearing her story?
So it was really interesting. So I met Rosa Parks when I was working again at Henry Ford Museum later in the early 20s where we collected the bus on which Rosa Parks was riding when she got elected or got arrested. Interestingly, also, two of my Smithsonian colleagues who are really involved in collecting that bus were also with me at that Henry Ford Museum, were doing that work then Bill Kretzer, who's now at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and Malcolm Collum, who is the chief conservator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
So we were working on collecting that bus, but well before that, by the two thousands, everybody sort of there were many people who were remembering and honoring Mrs. Parks. In the early 1990s, I was director of a program looking at the history of African-Americans and slavery in Georgia, just outside Savannah, Georgia, and and also running an exhibit that was a working farm of African and African-American landowning family in that same area in the early 20th century. And Rosa Parks wanted.
Visit the museum. I'm a twenty one twenty two year old kid working there at that point and and just sort of says talks about kind of how we viewed as a society. Rosa Parks, at that time, she was just a lady working in Congressman John Conyers office in Detroit. And and it wasn't it was thought she's a special visitor, but not to the point that they should have someone more important than the twenty 21 year old kid to take her around.
So I got the benefit of that and was able to spend several hours with Mrs. Parks driving her around in the nineteen thirty one Ford model station wagon and taking her to see these things. But she did see this exhibit and as we spoke to, amazing things happened. First, as I said, not too many people really just us going around, but children. It was a day when many schoolchildren were visiting the museum. And as I went from building to building, Henry Ford Museum also includes an outdoor space called Greenfield Village, and that has many houses of historic homes and so forth.
And so we went from place to place. It became a de facto parade of kids following the car because that the face of Mrs. Parks is in so many textbooks. And and they knew her story and wanted to get her autograph. But in addition, the biggest thing that I took away from it was she did not at all seem like the demure mother, Rosa, that we learn about in school. She in nineteen ninety two, I think it was I was still angry.
She looked around at you. I asked her to talk about what. Nineteen fifty five mentioned. Fifty six were like. She was angry about that when I asked her to talk about what. Nineteen ninety one, nineteen ninety two was like and she was just as angry about that and really a fiery person and, and I'll never forget that. And what about Congressman John Lewis, who was terribly injured as well during the struggle? I mean, he must have a remarkable story.
Congressman Lewis. Yes. Has has, first of all, been a huge friend of the Smithsonian. And and many of the programs that I've done, we've brought him in to do programs related to the Greensboro lunch counter to our Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer programming that we did in the last few years and his his devotion. He's one of those people who in the civil rights movement, during the nonviolent the rise of the nonviolent Direct Action campaign, there were some folks, many folks who felt like that idea of nonviolent direct action, that Gandhi that they learned from Gandhi, that they learned from people in the United States like Reverend Jim Lawson, felt like it was a it was a powerful tactic.
It was certainly a tactic that was possible when they felt like self-defense was not a possible tactic because there was so much power on the other side. But not everybody took it to heart as a way of life. And Congressman Lewis has been one of the icons of that. But he despite being injured in numerous in numerous activities in the Selma to Montgomery march in the Freedom Rides, he was beaten over and over again, fighting for justice. He not only didn't fight back, but has always taken that love into his heart and taken that to the United States Congress.
And I think that that is just one of the most remarkable things about him.
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Let's talk about nonviolence. You've mentioned that when you've interviewed these people, how how unusual was it? How hard was it? Was this a revolutionary idea?
Do you think that was being embraced?
Was certainly a revolutionary idea. Just recently, I've interviewed him several times and most recently in January, Reverend James Lawson, Reverend Lawson was working in Ohio and Stutt had taken trips around the world and began studying Gandhi, as well as other freedom movements all around the world that was really taken by the teachings of Gandhi and began teaching that at Oberlin in Ohio. Martin Luther King eventually met him and said, we don't have anybody like you in the South. Martin Luther King was coming, was coming to understand in a really awful way the power of nonviolence and the commitment that it took to to practice it in the way that Gandhi really traditional, the way that Gandhi had developed it and asked Louis Lawson to come to the south, and he ended up going to Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
And and that was studying divinity in 1958 and 1959. Primarily, he began a really a study group where he called a number of students together to start learning and learning and studying those practices with a view toward nonviolent direct action. That study group was one of the most amazing college study groups you can imagine. It included John Lewis, it included Diane Nash and included James Bevel, included the the the leaders, the people who became the leaders of not only the civil rights movement, but people who then inspired the the peace movement later.
And many of the tactics that we see arise in in and debates around which that we see arise in the 1950s and 60s and into the into the present. So but folks like Diane Nash have told me she immediately was not taken with the idea of nonviolence, didn't necessarily think it would work. Of course, we're also talking about a generation just removed from World War Two. The WHO had and hundreds of thousands of blacks were involved in the war effort.
People like my father who said nonviolence just never, never I never understood the idea of I won't hit back if you hit me. And so a lot of people had to be convinced that this was a tactic that would work. And even more difficult was convincing people that taking it into your heart is Congressman Lewis has or Diane Nash was necessary, that it couldn't just be a tactic it needed to.
A way of life in order to be successful, which is what Gandhi would when to come home to ultrafast broadband and sky, his best ever Wi-Fi for our lowest ever price from just 30 euro a month. So you can now play games, stream music and download movies at ultrafast speeds for less than ever before. To switch from just 30 euro month for 12 month search guy 30 availability subject to location set up these terms and conditions applied for more Infosys guidelines for its speed.
So the question I posed at the start of this podcast was why in the whole of Europe are there Quins Regnant during the medieval period, but not in Ireland? And the answer Professor Bartlett gave me is because it was customary for Irish kings take many wives. So there was never a shortage of sons. Whereas over in England, over in France and elsewhere, those those kings, they just had one wife. I mean, the old mistress like Henry, the first and a lot of illegitimate children, but they were excluded from the line of succession is in Ireland.
Plenty of wives, plenty of sons, no shortage. Amalia's fascinating. You know what? Use your Vodafone unlimited data. Have a little Google. Prove me wrong. Send me a tweet. I'd love to know if there are any queens. Let your whole family follow their curiosity when you bring everyone's plans together on our multi mobile read family plan. Such Vodafone read family for more.
But it's interesting you use the word, because there is you know, it's it's not just a lifestyle. It was it was designed very cleverly to provoke confrontation that they would then which would then allow the world to see who actually the aggressors in this situation.
I mean, can you talk me through what nonviolence meant in terms of the the you know, the tactics, as you say, that they would then go and use on the streets or dining in Woolworth's counter or whatever?
It's certainly well, one of the things that that veterans of the movement say quite often is that the first thing that nonviolence did was change the person practicing it. And for many of the moments of the civil rights movement, the Nonviolent Direct Action didn't directly result in in changes and didn't we're not the only thing that resulted that would result in a change. For instance, the Montgomery bus boycott, ultimately what ended it was a court decision argued by attorney Fred Gray still alive, and that that really expanded.
The idea of separate is not equal. That separate can never be equal that the Supreme Court had said about public education in nineteen fifty four and expanded that into a broader a broader realm in terms of public transportation. But what happened in Montgomery was people, again, who had been a community, who had been who had undergone oppression, even mental oppression, as we've talked about with the the type the impact of the segregation laws, it ended up proving to the Montgomery community that they had power.
And so that was one of the one of the effects of nonviolence. In addition, it it definitely disarmed the opponents. And when it was a really radical idea to say we are going to put our bodies on the line to force a change and you can kill us. This is one of the things that I have said to me, that she eventually understood and had to come to this realization of ourselves that you had to be willing to say what, you can kill us, but now you can never segregate us again because we will not be segregated.
We are taking that power and we may not be taking all of the power because, again, you can you can incarcerate us. You can go all the way up to putting us to death, but you cannot enslave us in the same way that you did before. And so that and that power goes both ways. I think power empowers the people saying it, but it also deflects and and and makes impotent the people on the other side. And then lastly, I think the nonviolence really allowed, as I think we are seeing today with some of the protests, a lot laid bare the the violence and the oppression that people were seeing we're facing.
And that that became so clear because it was covered in the news media and so forth. And and so when they caught it arrested, when they it violence and when that violence then happened, many people came around and saying, well, I can see on television this is just not fair or right.
What we're going to watch another little clip now. We're going to see Martin Luther King himself. He's called to protest following Rosa Parks, his arrest on on that bus, as you mentioned. But first of all, want to say hello to Abdulkareem Aboubacar, who is watching from Somalia, which I think is our first the first time I've seen someone watching from Somalia. So thank you very much. I hope you're enjoying this stream. But let's take a look at this documentary from time line now.
A number of years, the Negro passengers on the city bus lines of Montgomery had been humiliated and intimidated and face threats on this bus line just the other day. One of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested because she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested and taken down to jail, taken from the bus just because she refused to give up her seat.
At present, we are in the midst of a protest. The Negro citizens of Montgomery, representing some 44 percent of the population, 90 percent at least, are the regular Negro bus.
Passengers are staying off the buses and we plan to continue until something is done.
So there Christopher Wilson, historian and Smithsonian Museum curator, what we've just seen, Martin Luther King, he is such a towering figure. How important is he within this movement? And does he does he overshadow some of the other activists that you've been talking about that you've met and interviewed? I think the answer is yes to both questions, I mean, he certainly is a towering figure and the movement wouldn't have been the same without him. His oratory, his his manner of bringing people together and coalescing around the cause, his political activism.
Certainly is was was hugely significant about in it, he certainly also does overshadow the full understanding of the movement as a people's movement. It's there have been other individuals in American history, Frederick Douglass and so forth, and in the African-American freedom struggle who have had similar impact. And but one of the things that was different, really about nineteen fifty fifties and sixties was how many people were involved and how much how strong it became as a people's movement. And and I don't think that that what I don't think we should do is at all diminish Martin Luther King's legacy and memory, because in fact I don't think that we as a country and as a society understand him fully, understand his greatness as fully as we should.
We certainly don't we certainly don't understand him as a person who was as radical as he was. We think of his statements like the dream speech, for instance, during the march on Washington in nineteen sixty three. And we remember it as a many times as a call for a colorblind society. And people should not be should be judged by the content of the character of their character and not the color of their skin. But we also have to remember that that speech was about ultimately a sort of reparations, that speech in that speech, he said the United States had passed a bad check to to its citizens of color.
And we were coming to collect that check. And that check was had been returned for a non sufficient funds and so forth. And the march on Washington was the march on Washington for jobs and freedom. And that's what one of the things he was really talking about. So I don't think we will remember him fully in a four way. But in another way, we we we remember the movement as too much related to him as too much of Martin Luther King's movement.
And and I think that that is a bit troubling in the sense that people and I hear this many times from civil rights movement leaders and activists from the time who say, if you think of it as a movement led by an influential leader like Martin Luther King, a one of a kind leader like Martin Luther King, people like Rosa Parks and so forth, you think, well, I wish we had a person like that now and I wish we had a leader who could lead us out of this out of the problems that we're in today.
But if you think of it as ordinary people doing it, then you think, what can I do? And so I think that it's we have we have that that issue of public memory sort of in both directions. Thanks a lot. Now we need to move on from Dr. King because there was also there was a debate famously between rich and poor ones about Malcolm X. It was it wasn't just it wasn't just a given. The whole African-American community embraced nonviolence.
There was also there were voices advocating a more stringent self-defense.
That certainly one really strong voice. And when we're talking even about that, that sort of Montgomery to to Memphis or Montgomery to Selma idea of the civil rights movement. And then we often think that that that period was really about the South and really about segregation and really about and the tactics used was nonviolent direct action and sermons and voter registration drives and so forth. And then the way we publicly remember it is you have more of the Malcolm X, Black Power, Black Panther Party defense model leading us to the violent clashes that we saw in 1967 in Detroit in nineteen sixty eight after King's assassination.
But and we think of it as this bifurcated story with different with tactics changing with the period. But those ideas were all alive at the same time. In nineteen fifty eight, there was a case called the known as the Kissing Case in Monroe, North Carolina. Two black children, James Thompson and David Simpson, were accused of well, kissed a white girl of the same age. These were kids under 10 years old. They were all playing together.
I've been seeing a little viral video going around of two of a black and white toddler playing together today and that being used in different political ways right now. Well. Kids played together during this period of segregation sometimes, too, and at this point someone kissed someone else. And when the white kids parents found out about a white girl's parents, found out about it, they first set out to kill the children, the black children themselves. And then the police were involved.
The kids were taken without really legal representation, taken without being able to see their parents and put in jail, eventually sentenced to reform school. And they're between seven and nine years old. They were sentenced to reform school until the age of twenty one for kissing a girl, actually. And in fact, I think actually she kissed them so. So there was no crime. But yet they were sentenced to reform school till age 20. One man named Robert F.
Williams really got involved and became more or less a publicity are trying to get publicity in in Europe to really push to get the details of this case out. And and eventually they were freed. After a number of months and in jail, Robert Williams moved on from that activity to another similar case where a white man rapes or attempted rape of black women also in Monroe and was then acquitted from of doing that happened in broad daylight. There was no doubt about it.
He was acquitted. But Williams came away from both of those cases deciding that that non-violence was not the way to go, that if the if the government and represented by the police, by the courts, by every governmental agency was going to oppress people in this way and use violence and intimidation in that way, the only way that he felt things could get better was to meet violence with violence. So he applied for membership to the National Rifle Association to create a rifle club and began what he called the Black Guard in in in Monroe and decided to protect the black community with self-defense.
He eventually was forced out of the country. He trumped up kidnapping charges levied against him, and he fled to Cuba and then later to China. And while in exile, he wrote the book in nineteen sixty two Negroes with guns, which I was able to know very well, and interview his partner and widow, Mabel Williams. And we did a program with her on Negroes with Guns at the Smithsonian in 2005 and and talked about her story of of self-defense and what she then did in exile.
And and it's just really amazing that that idea and those those those those thoughts were happening at the same time as nonviolent direct action is being developed as well. So there is this debate about which way to move forward. And so it's and it's often thought of as sort of Malcolm X versus people like Bayard Rustin. But it wasn't just them. It was many people talking about what is the right path forward now.
And it also feels like those debates continue when you're looking at the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, when you're looking at the protests on the streets of the US and other countries around the world, what one of the bits of history that are being flagged up in your head or that you think we need to know that you think people on the streets need to know and people in governments need to know?
Well, one of the things that is that I'm noticing that is a really important aspect of what is happening today is the diversity that we're seeing. There was diversity in the civil rights movement. There were many white activists who were drawn to come to the south and become become active in things like Freedom Summer. And even before that, Freedom Rides, I was able to interview a really remarkable man, Jim Zwerg, who is was beaten. And during one of the during the Freedom Rides in nineteen sixty one, he was part of the second sort of group of folks to get this Freedom Rides going again.
Freedom. The Freedom Rides really was started by the organization, the Congress of Racial Equality. And it and that that initial moment, that initial part of that movement took buses. They. Boarded buses, interstate buses, where there was already there already been rulings to say that segregation in interstate transit was unconstitutional, but states in the South were not were still enforcing unconstitutional laws. And so they decided to test this and try to, as we mentioned before, not only court sort of potential violence, but also forced the federal government to into a situation where it either had to enforce its own laws or let lawlessness exist in the south.
And that happened. The initial Freedom Rides organizers probably did not expect the level of violence that they that they saw in Alabama and those buses were attacked and firebombed and so forth. And then really led by Diane Nash, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided, well, we can't let violence overcome nonviolence, even though this isn't our fight. We didn't start this. We didn't start the Freedom Rides. We aren't at all involved. When she saw it on television, they decided we have to continue the Freedom Rides.
And so they did. And people like Jim's word came down and decided to not only join that movement, but go attend as a white person and attend the historically black college. So we saw white activists come into the movement, but not really, I don't think, in the numbers that we're seeing. But one of today and one of the things that I think that has really affected, that really affected people in the in this time, someone, again, like James or Joan Mulholland, who lives here in the D.C. area, and and she said she's a person who was in a really famous photograph of a sit in in Mississippi where they were violently attacked.
Those folks definitely understood the violence and the oppression against them, against African-Americans in a really personal way because they saw it themselves. I think one of the things that is happening that is that is different today is that many people are out in the streets and they are seeing police brutality firsthand. Their experience, unfortunately, sometimes firsthand, but they're also seeing it when they're in protests and through social media. My own son has came to me. I wasn't I thought he was a bit more sheltered from some of this.
But on his iPod, apparently he had seen some of the protests and came to me and said. How can someone how can a police officer just run someone over who's just standing there with another police officer running someone over with their hearts or their cars and so forth? And so I think that more and more people across the racial racial divides, across the political divides are seeing some of the issues firsthand and feeling some of those issues firsthand in the same way that that Ginsburg and Donna Holland had done in the 60s.
But there's just so many more experience that today.
Well, Chris, I could talk about this all day, but I'm going to let you go. So so. Crystal Wilson, thank you for joining us, director of experiences on Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. I can't wait to get that museum as soon as we lock down and study. But thank you very much for coming on.
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