Honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
and Understanding African-American History

More than 50 years have passed since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. During his time as leader of the Civil Rights Movement, landmark legislation was passed to help secure the equality that was promised, but rarely offered to African-Americans after slavery was abolished. The North’s victory in the Civil War, far from guaranteeing rights, ushered in a new era in which violent racism and discrimination continued unhampered and encouraged in many parts of the United States.

While Dr. King’s actions led to progressive laws and changes, the goal of eliminating racism in our society has remained elusive. Both covert and overt discrimination are still very much a part of our national conversation. Just last week, Steve King, a recently re-elected congressman from Iowa, was censored by his colleagues for his latest remarks supporting the White Nationalist Agenda. Many Americans who had hoped that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency marked a new era of tolerance and acceptance have been disappointed by the evidence that racism is not only still with us, but that its expression is increasing.

It has often been said that understanding history is the way to prevent repeating it. When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, DC in September 2016, President Barack Obama led the inaugural festivities. At the dedication ceremony, he said, “African-American history is not somehow separate than the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”

Conceived as an effort to present history, in its “unvarnished truth,” the Museum also celebrates and documents highlights of African-American culture. It was an instant sensation, quickly becoming the hottest ticket in Washington, DC. Even those who have tickets, which are free like all national museums, are warned of long lines, especially at the beginning of the exhibit.

The beginning starts below, in the basement, and it covers the earliest years, from 1619-1865, when millions of African-Americans were captured and enslaved. People tend to linger there, carefully inspecting the meticulously curated items that document the darkest chapter in our nation’s history. Many of these items, like the irons that men and women wore as they crossed the Atlantic in slave ships, have never been seen before.

The Museum’s collection is vast, it takes at least several hours to go through it, and a lot more if you want to linger, as many do. There is a special side exhibit, for example, which visitors are warned is troubling, devoted to the case of Emmett Till, a 14- year-old boy who was tortured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. There is a room for quiet reflection provided for visitors who may need time to gather their thoughts or emotions.

Visiting this Museum is indeed an emotional experience. No one can fail to be moved by the anguish of Africans who were enslaved and whose painful and often fatal trips across the Atlantic are documented. Every American is served well from confronting the truth of the legacy presented here.

Yet the Museum is dedicated to both history and culture, and my impression as I moved through the exhibits was that the accent was on the positive. This was surprising, since a lot of the initial news coverage focused on the difficult and painful contents of the Museum. There are prominent displays devoted to visionary figures we have all heard of, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. There are also numerous historical exhibits about less well-known figures in African-American history and culture. Phyllis Wheatley, for example, published a book of poetry while enslaved, in 1773. At the time, it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write. Another display is of items produced by silversmith Peter Bentzon, who was a free man working in Philadelphia during the early 19th century.

Prominent figures in the entertainment arts are celebrated, from Marian Anderson to Chuck Berry, from Hattie McDaniel to Oprah Winfrey (a major contributor to the funding of the Museum). Sports figures are also well represented, including the history that accompanied each breakthrough as heroes like Jackie Robinson shattered the color barriers that stood in their way.

Especially prominent, of course, is the Civil War, its aftermath, and later, the Civil Rights Movement. Warriors who fought against slavery, black and white (like William Lloyd Garrison) are celebrated, and the progress of the effort is meticulously detailed. The long build-up to the Civil War, its bloody progression, and its tragic aftermath are all vividly displayed.

One of the most important points is how the Civil War, while resulting in the abolition of slavery, did not truly “emancipate” African-Americans from their lives of hardship and servitude. Though the wealth of our nation had been built on the slaves’ backs, and though the freed men were promised “40 acres and a mule” so that they could farm their own land and prosper, in reality most became sharecroppers. Desperate poverty and subservience to the white hegemony were the rule, and prosperity was a rare exception.

The efforts made during Reconstruction led to the backlash that created the brutally segregated Jim Crow South. The open racism in the South was mirrored by other forms of institutionalized discrimination in the North, like the 20th century practice of “redlining” that kept blacks from buying property—the single largest source of wealth for the average American.

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