See President Obama’s Remarks at the Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

"This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other."

President Obama speaks at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
President Obama speaks at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was officially inaugurated today, the last museum to take its place on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Long in the making, the $540-million, 400,000-square-foot museum designed by architect David Adjaye tells the story of African Americans in the United States, from slavery to the present day, through artifacts and artworks.

The ceremonies combined political and cultural luminaries of all kinds, from congressman and civil rights leader Jim Lewis, to former president George W. Bush and chief justice John Roberts, and celebrities Angela Bassett, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, and Oprah Winfrey. Stevie Wonder performed.

President Barack Obama’s half-hour speech, however, was the part of the afternoon that will likely be remembered, as he made a case for the museum as a testament to the spirit of the United States:

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 gloved fist. How you can wear an “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.

The opening of the NMAAHC comes, of course, at a time of renewed struggle around racial justice in the country, and Obama sought to frame the significance of the museum against this background:

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 insure 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 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 even in the face of oppression, even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, America has moved forward. 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.

The President concluded on a personal note:

Over the years I have always been comforted as I have 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 bring not just our kids but hopefully our grandkids. I imagine holding the little hand of somebody, and telling them the stories that are enshrined here. And in the years that follow they will be able to do the same, and then we will go to the Lincoln Monument and take the view from the top of the Washington Monument, and we will learn about ourselves, as Americans, our sufferings, our delights, and our triumphs, and we will walk away better for it. Better because we better grasped the truth. We will walk away that much more in love with this country, the only place on earth where this story could have unfolded. It is a monument no less than the others on this mall to the deep and abiding love of this country and the ideals upon which it was founded, for we too are American.

With that, a bell from the First Baptist Church in Virginia, one of the oldest black churches in America, was rung, and the museum was officially open.

The entire opening remarks are archived at YouTube; Obama’s speech begins at the 3:21:00-minute mark:


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