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

Racial discrimination, whether overt or subtle, was accompanied by murderous hostility in some areas of the South, and the history of the Klu Klux Clan, lynchings, and mob violence are also detailed here. But while Emmet Till is remembered and honored here, so is Rosa Parks, who sparked the blaze of the Civil Rights movement when she famously refused to move to the “back of the bus.”

But as I said, the accent is more on the positive, and a great many of the visitors at the Museum on the day I went were African-American families. One of the last exhibits in the historical section is devoted to President Barack Obama. The dress First Lady Michelle Obama wore to the inaugural ball is also there, for example. (As her husband spoke during the dedication ceremony, she is shown in a photograph sitting behind him with tears in her eyes.) Obama, his election and achievements, represent one of the spectacular breakthroughs in African-American history, but I found it one of the saddest of moments on exhibit.

I was saddened by it because despite the advances and progress that his election and presidency represent, the national dialogue seems to have coarsened and people in this country are more polarized than they have been in a long time. Black people, and many others, are still at risk here, as the shootings of unarmed black men have so poignantly illustrated. To underline this threat, on several occasions someone has left nooses hanging on Smithsonian grounds, even in the Museum itself, meant to be foul reminders of the hatred that still lingers.

Some would like to turn back the progress we have made, and some would like to return to the days when America was only truly safe for a small minority of its citizens. But the hopeful lesson that the Museum itself teaches is that history moves forward, and, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Each step forward was met with resistance and in many cases, steps backward. But things moved slowly and painfully in the right direction in spite of this. Slavery was abolished, and never brought back. Our society is more integrated than ever before, and interracial marriage, once illegal, is now taken for granted. We did elect an African-American president, one who left a legacy of dignity that cannot be erased.

As founding director Lonnie Bunch said, the Museum celebrates “not just the well known, but also those famous only to their families, whose lives in quiet ways shaped this nation.” As long as ordinary citizens continue to fight for justice and work to make America better, progress is possible. Meanwhile, this Museum was founded in the belief that a strong nation does not deny truth, even if it is ugly, painful, and shameful. By confronting the story of African-Americans we are brought to a better understanding of what shaped the nation we live in today, and where we need to go in the days ahead.


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