Walter Coppage needed a hug.
The longtime Kansas City actor and director didn’t exactly know that in the moment. It was just a feeling that overcame him last weekend as he stood in front of a Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The museum took decades (some say a century) to finally become reality. The 80,000-square-foot Smithsonian institution on the National Mall opened Sept. 23, its inauguration attended by thousands of people and hundreds of dignitaries and celebrities. The viral photo of first lady Michelle Obama embracing former President George W. Bush before the doors opened gave warm fuzzies to even the hardest of partisans.
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Timed-entry passes were more rare than Willy Wonka golden tickets, so Coppage finding a way in on the inaugural weekend defied some sky-high odds.
“It was a matter of luck, good timing and the generosity of strangers,” Coppage told me as he drove home from Kansas City International Airport on Monday.
He had been back East to play King in a showcase of sorts, paying tribute to Walter Cronkite at New York’s Lincoln Center and the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in a production of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph.
With a few open hours on Sunday, Coppage took a bus to the Mall — well, as close to the Mall as he could. Streets had been closed, and crowds had assembled. He figured he could at least see the Mall’s King memorial, which he missed the last time he was there. He’d just take a selfie with the museum in the background, something to post online and mark the moment.
But then, a miracle.
“I was standing there, taking a picture on my cellphone, and I heard a voice saying, ‘Excuse me,’ ” he said. “I was right at the barricades, so I thought, ‘Am I doing something wrong?’ ”
A security guard approached Coppage and asked if he was alone. He was. Then the guard said he had an extra pass, and it was Coppage’s if he wanted it.
“I couldn’t put words together,” Coppage said. “And he says, ‘No, no, no, it’s free. Enjoy, my brother.’ ”
In a matter of minutes, Coppage was inside.
“I went through an exhibit of the Middle Passage, where they had bits and pieces of slave ships and it ended with the shackles,” he said. “I saw an actual lash that was used for whipping slaves. There was a quote from Solomon Northup, who wrote ‘12 Years a Slave,’ that said, ‘After the weighings came the whippings.’ ”
And there was so much more. The Bible Nat Turner carried when he was captured. A shawl England’s Queen Victoria gave to Harriet Tubman. Lead Belly’s guitar. Chuck Berry’s Cadillac. Jimi Hendrix’s vest. Shoes worn by Olympian Jesse Owens. A jersey worn by baseball icon Jackie Robinson. A robe worn by the Greatest.
It wasn’t just the larger-than-life examples. It was Garrett Augustus Morgan, who invented the gas mask. It was Charles Richard Drew, who discovered ways to safely store blood plasma. Suddenly, stories that were whispered among families, recited dispassionately in classrooms and just plain ignored by wider society were on display. Revered. Exalted.
Coppage was familiar with much of it. In addition to King, he played writer Langston Hughes in Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s film “Jayhawkers,” and he played a character based on Turner in the play “The Darker Face of the Earth.”
What impressed him more, however, was the rainbow of humanity finding comfort with one another.
“You could see people dabbing their eyes and holding each other,” he said. “It really got me.”
But also, there was joy.
“Everyone was ‘Hello!’ and ‘How are you?’ and ‘Are you having a good time? I’m having a good time,’ ” he said. “As exhibits got crowded, people kind of moved aside so that others could take pictures or offer to take pictures of people. Just so friendly and open and generous.”
It was testament to the necessity of such a place. Not only to help provide healing to a nation more interested in hiding its pain, shame and guilt, but also to promise hope.
“I have a son, he’s 23,” Coppage said. “There’s so much hurt and pain and anger over the police shootings, especially for the younger generation. You’re just a target, you’re just a criminal.”
But the entire time he was in the museum, Coppage said, he kept coming back to the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
“Yes, we’ve got work to do, great work that needs to be done and wrongs that need to be righted,” Coppage said. “But I learned from the museum that no matter how bad it is, no matter how hopeless it may seem, there’s still light. And we will get through it.”
Which brings us back to the hug.
Coppage stood before the exhibit about King’s death. His obituary was there, as was a program from the funeral, a Life magazine with Coretta Scott King on the cover and a large banner that read “Honor Dr. King, End Racism.”
He leaned in to take a picture when he noticed an elderly woman with a walker. “She was kind of stooped,” Coppage said. “A tiny little thing — maybe 5-foot-nuthin’.”
He would learn she was an 86-year-old grandmother from D.C., and he would think about all that she had experienced in her lifetime.
Barack Obama winning two terms as president, and Shirley Chisholm elected to the U.S. House. Separate water fountains. Lunch counters. Bus boycotts. She’d heard Malcolm X say “By any means necessary” and Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit.” Perhaps she heard relatives speak of Jim Crow, or grandparents talk of slavery.
But there, in that moment, on that day, she looked Coppage in the eye and said, in the most grandmotherly way, “I need a hug.”
Coppage said, “And I was like, I could use a hug, too.”
So they embraced, an actor from Kansas City and a grandmother from Washington, D.C., two complete strangers brought together in a reunion of our great big American family.