Museum of African American History Opening

Museum of African American History Opening


The President: James
Baldwin once wrote, “For while the tale of how we
suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may
triumph is never new, it always must be heard.” For while the tale of how
we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may
triumph is never new, it always must be heard. Today, as so many
generations have before, we gather on our National
Mall to tell an essential part of our American story
— one that has at times been overlooked — we come
not just for today, but for all time. President and Mrs. Bush, President Clinton; Vice President and Dr. Biden;
Chief Justice Roberts; Secretary Skorton;
Reverend Butts; distinguished
guests: Thank you. Thank you for your
leadership in making sure this tale is told. We’re here in part because
of you and because of all those Americans — the
Civil War vets, the Civil Rights foot soldiers, the
champions of this effort on Capitol Hill — who,
for more than a century, kept the dream of
this museum alive. That includes our leaders
in Congress — Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi. It includes one of my
heroes, John Lewis, who, as he has so often, took
the torch from those who came before him and
brought us past the finish line. It includes the
philanthropists and benefactors and advisory
members who have so generously given not only
their money but their time. It includes the Americans
who offered up all the family keepsakes tucked
away in Grandma’s attic. And of course, it includes
a man without whose vision and passion and
persistence we would not be here today —
Mr. Lonnie Bunch. (applause) What we can see of this
building — the towering glass, the artistry of the
metalwork — is surely a sight to behold. But beyond the majesty of
the building, what makes this occasion so special
is the larger story it contains. Below us, this building
reaches down 70 feet, its roots spreading far wider
and deeper than any tree on this Mall. And on its lowest level,
after you walk past remnants of a slave ship,
after you reflect on the immortal declaration that
“all men are created equal,” you can see
a block of stone. On top of this stone sits
a historical marker, weathered by the ages. That marker reads:
“General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from
this slave block…during the year 1830.” I want you to
think about this. Consider what this
artifact tells us about history, about how it’s
told, and about what can be cast aside. On a stone where day after
day, for years, men and women were torn from their
spouse or their child, shackled and bound, and
bought and sold, and bid like cattle; on a stone
worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare
feet — for a long time, the only thing we
considered important, the singular thing we once
chose to commemorate as “history” with a plaque
were the unmemorable speeches of two
powerful men. And that block I think
explains why this museum is so necessary. Because that same object,
reframed, put in context, tells us so much more. As Americans, we
rightfully passed on the tales of the giants who
built this country; who led armies into battle and
waged seminal debates in the halls of Congress and
the corridors of power. But too often, we ignored
or forgot the stories of millions upon millions of
others, who built this nation just as surely,
whose humble eloquence, whose calloused hands,
whose steady drive helped to create cities, erect
industries, build the arsenals of democracy. And so this national
museum helps to tell a richer and fuller
story of who we are. It helps us better
understand the lives, yes, of the President, but
also the slave; the industrialist, but also
the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also
of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo;
the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this
other story, we better understand ourselves
and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of
us are America — that African-American history
is not somehow separate from our larger American
story, it’s not the underside of the American
story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not
just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve
wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve
been able to remake ourselves, again and again
and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America. The great historian John
Hope Franklin, who helped to get this museum
started, once said, “Good history is a good
foundation for a better present and future.” He understood the best
history doesn’t just sit behind a glass case; it
helps us to understand what’s outside the case. The best history helps us
recognize the mistakes that we’ve made and the
dark corners of the human spirit that we need
to guard against. And, yes, a clear-eyed
view of history can make us uncomfortable, and
shake us out of familiar narratives. But it is precisely
because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and
harness our collective power to make this
nation more perfect. That’s the American story
that this museum tells — one of suffering and
delight; one of fear but also of hope; of wandering
in the wilderness and then seeing out on the horizon
a glimmer of the Promised Land. It is in this embrace of
truth, as best as we can know it, in the
celebration of the entire American experience, where
real patriotism lies. As President Bush just
said, a great nation doesn’t shy
from the truth. It strengthens us. It emboldens us. It should fortify us. It is an act of patriotism
to understand where we’ve been. And this museum tells the
story of so many patriots. Yes, African Americans
have felt the cold weight of shackles and the
stinging lash of the field whip. But we’ve also dared to
run north, and sing songs from Harriet
Tubman’s hymnal. We’ve buttoned up our
Union Blues to join the fight for our freedom. We’ve railed against
injustice for decade upon decade — a lifetime of
struggle, and progress, and enlightenment that we
see etched in Frederick Douglass’s mighty,
leonine gaze. Yes, this museum tells a
story of people who felt the indignity, the small
and large humiliations of a “whites only” sign, or
wept at the side of Emmett Till’s coffin, or fell to
their knees on shards of stained glass outside a
church where four little girls died. But it also tells the
story of the black youth and white youth sitting
alongside each other, straight-backed, so full
of dignity on those lunch counter stools; the story
of a six-year-old Ruby Bridges, pigtails,
fresh-pressed dress, walking that gauntlet to
get to school; Tuskegee airmen soaring the skies
not just to beat a dictator, but to reaffirm
the promise of our democracy — (applause) — but remind us that all
of us are created equal. This is the place to
understand how protest and love of country don’t
merely coexist but inform each other; how men can
proudly win the gold for their country but still
insist on raising a black-gloved fist; how we
can wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt and still grieve
for fallen police officers. Here’s the America where
the razor-sharp uniform of the Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff belongs alongside the cape of
the Godfather of Soul. (laughter) We have shown the world
that we can float like butterflies and sting like
bees; that we can rocket into space like Mae
Jemison, steal home like Jackie, rock like Jimi,
stir the pot like Richard Pryor; or we can be sick
and tired of being sick and tired, like Fannie
Lou Hamer, and still Rock Steady like
Aretha Franklin. (applause) We are large, Walt Whitman
told us, containing multitudes. We are large,
containing multitudes. Full of contradictions. That’s America. That’s what makes us grow. That’s what makes
us extraordinary. And as is true for
America, so is true for African American
experience. We’re not a burden on
America, or a stain on America, or an object
of pity or charity for America. We’re America. (applause) And that’s what this
museum explains — the fact that our stories have
shaped every corner of our culture. The struggles for freedom
that took place made our Constitution a real and
living document, tested and shaped and deepened
and made more profound its meaning for all people. The story told here
doesn’t just belong to black Americans; it
belongs to all Americans — for the
African-American experience has been shaped
just as much by Europeans and Asians and Native
Americans and Latinos. We have informed
each other. We are polyglot, a stew. Scripture promised that if
we lift up the oppressed, then our light will rise
in the darkness, and our night will become
like the noonday. And the story contained in
this museum makes those words prophecy. And that’s what
this day is about. That’s what this
museum is about. I, too, am America. It is a glorious story,
the one that’s told here. It is complicated and it
is messy and it is full of contradictions, as all
great stories are, as Shakespeare is,
as Scripture is. And it’s a story that
perhaps needs to be told now more than ever. A museum alone will not
alleviate poverty in every inner city or
every rural hamlet. It won’t eliminate gun
violence from all our neighborhoods, or
immediately ensure that justice is always
colorblind. It won’t wipe away every
instance of discrimination in a job interview or a
sentencing hearing or folks trying to
rent an apartment. Those things are up to us,
the decisions and choices we make. It requires speaking
out, and organizing, and voting, until our values
are fully reflected in our laws and our policies
and our communities. But what this museum does
show us is that in even the face of oppression,
even in the face of unimaginable difficulty,
America has moved forward. And so this museum
provides context for the debates of our times. It illuminates them and
gives us some sense of how they evolved, and perhaps
keeps them in proportion. Perhaps it can help a
white visitor understand the pain and anger of
demonstrators in places like Tulsa and Charlotte. But it can also help black
visitors appreciate the fact that not only is
this younger generation carrying on traditions of
the past but, within the white communities across
this nation we see the sincerity of law
enforcement officers and officials who, in fits and
starts, are struggling to understand, and are trying
to do the right thing. It reminds us that routine
discrimination and Jim Crow aren’t ancient
history, it’s just a blink in the eye of history. It was just yesterday. And so we should not be
surprised that not all the healing is done. We shouldn’t despair that
it’s not all solved. And knowing the larger
story should instead remind us of just how
remarkable the changes that have taken place
truly are — just in my lifetime — and thereby
inspire us to further progress. And so hopefully this
museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly,
listen to each other. And most importantly,
see each other. Black and white and Latino
and Native American and Asian American — see how
our stories are bound together. And bound together with
women in America, and workers in America, and
entrepreneurs in America, and LGBT Americans. And for young people who
didn’t live through the struggles represented
here, I hope you draw strength from the changes
that have taken place. Come here and see the
power of your own agency. See how young
John Lewis was. These were children who
transformed a nation in a blink of an eye. Young people, come here
and see your ability to make your mark. The very fact of this
day does not prove that America is perfect, but it
does validate the ideas of our founding, that this
country born of change, this country born of
revolution, this country of we, the people, this
country can get better. And that’s why we
celebrate, mindful that our work is not yet done;
mindful that we are but on a waystation on this
common journey towards freedom. And how glorious it is
that we enshrine it here, on some of our nation’s
most hallowed ground — the same place where lives
were once traded but also where hundreds of
thousands of Americans, of all colors and
creeds, once marched. How joyful it is that this
story take its rightful place — alongside
Jefferson who declared our independence, and
Washington who made it real, and alongside
Lincoln who saved our union, and the GIs who
defended it; alongside a new monument to a King,
gazing outward, summoning us toward that
mountaintop. How righteous it is that
with tell this story here. For almost eight years, I
have been blessed with the extraordinary honor of
serving you in this office. (applause) Time and again, I’ve flown
low over this mall on Marine One, often
with Michelle and our daughters. And President Clinton,
President Bush, they’ll tell you it is
incredible sight. We pass right across the
Washington Monument — it feels like you can
reach out and touch it. And at night, if you turn
the other way, you don’t just see the Lincoln
Memorial, Old Abe is lit up and you can see him,
his spirit glowing from that building. And we don’t have
many trips left. But over the years, I’ve
always been comforted as I’ve watched this museum
rise from this earth into this remarkable tribute. Because I know that years
from now, like all of you, Michelle and I will be
able to come here to this museum, and not just bring
our kids but hopefully our grandkids. I imagine holding a little
hand of somebody and tell them the stories that
are enshrined here. And in the years that
follow, they’ll be able to do the same. And then we’ll go to the
Lincoln Memorial and we’ll take in the view atop
the Washington Monument. And together, we’ll learn
about ourselves, as Americans — our
sufferings, our delights, and our triumphs. And we’ll walk away better
for it, better because the better grasp of history. We’ll walk away that much
more in love with this country, the only place
on Earth where this story could have unfolded. (applause) It is a monument, no less
than the others on this Mall, to the deep and
abiding love for this country, and the ideals
upon which it is founded. For we, too, are America. So enough talk. President Bush
is timing me. (laughter) He had the
over/under at 25. (laughter) Let us now open this
museum to the world. Today, we have with us a
family that reflects the arc of our progress: the
Bonner family — four generations in all,
starting with gorgeous seven-year-old Christine
and going up to gorgeous 99-year-old Ruth. (applause) Now, Ruth’s father, Elijah
Odom, was born into servitude in Mississippi. He was born a slave. As a young boy, he ran,
though, to his freedom. He lived through
Reconstruction and he lived through Jim Crow. But he went on to farm,
and graduate from medical school, and gave life to
the beautiful family that we see today — with
a spirit reflected in beautiful Christine, free
and equal in the laws of her country and in
the eyes of God. So in a brief moment,
their family will join us in ringing a bell from the
First Baptist Church in Virginia — one of the
oldest black churches in America, founded under a
grove of trees in 1776. And the sound of this bell
will be echoed by others in houses of worship and
town squares all across this country — an echo
of the ringing bells that signaled Emancipation more
than a century and a half ago; the sound, and the
anthem, of American freedom. God bless you all. God bless the United
States of America. (applause)

Dereck Turner

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