BY JESSE JACKSON
September 27, 2016
Demonstrations continue in Charlotte, N.C., and protests have spread
to Atlanta and elsewhere, sparked most recently by the police killing of
Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte.
Against that backdrop, I joined thousands for the opening of the
National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall in
The museum is a stunning achievement. It does not blink at our
nation’s history, nearly 400 years since the first slave ship came to
our land. But it is not a story of despair and suffering. It tells a
story of transcendence, of injustices righted, of people — black and
white, some famous and most unknown — who sacrificed and built, marched
and protested, prayed and sang to make America better.
What the museum does, fundamentally, is change our sense of America’s
narrative. It reveals that African-Americans are not at the bottom of
America but part of its foundation, not parasites but central to the
host. We are not debtors to America, but creditors. And with that
recognition, our angle of vision changes, we are empowered by the
knowledge of our past.
As the poet Sonia Sanchez put it in an interview with the Washington
Post: “The great thing about it is that we came out of slavery and we
built. And we build and we build, and that’s what we’ve done — in spite
of all kinds of terrible things that have happened to us, we’ve built.
We built churches and schools, and we built homes, and we said we’re
here now, you’ve brought us here. We are a part of this great American
landscape, and you are going to remember us. You’re going to remember us
when you come to this museum.”
As President Barack Obama put it at the opening ceremony:
“African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger
American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is
central to the American story.”
Former president George W. Bush signed the legislation that authorized
building the museum. His wife, Laura, sits on its board and dedicated
hours and energy to bring it to fruition. As the opening ceremony, Bush
captured the museum’s importance. First, “it shows our commitment to
truth. A great nation does not hide its history.” Second, it shows
“America’s capacity to change.” The founders summoned us to a high
standard — that “all men (and women) are created equal” — and gave us
democratic liberties to struggle and create a “more perfect union.”
Third, Bush noted, the museum showcases triumph and success, the talent
and contributions of extraordinary Americans. From Martin Luther King to
the great jurist Thurgood Marshall, from Chuck Berry and Muhammad Ali to
Aretha Franklin and Rosa Parks.
The museum grounds us in our history. It reminds us that slavery ended
barely more than 150 years ago, the span of two long lives. We got the
right to vote and ended legal apartheid within my own lifetime. We still
deal with the economic and human costs of those injustices. Not
surprisingly, we have still a long way to go to fulfill our own ideals.
And the museum reminds us that won’t happen unless people demand the
change. Those demonstrators in Charlotte and Atlanta, the Black Lives
Matter movement and the Dreamers demanding immigration reform are part
of a long and honored tradition of citizens of conscience standing up,
and making America better.
The museum will not be a passive spectator site. It will revive
efforts to create a national day for remembrance of slavery. It should
renew the drive to make lynching a federal crime. It should inspire the
efforts to reform our criminal justice system, to offer equal
opportunity to all. America’s great strength is to achieve triumph from
tragedy, to find strength in differences, to contain multitudes. The
demand for justice is rising once more. The need is clear; the call
compelling. And as this museum reminds us, change is possible if
citizens of conscience stand up.