President Obama spoke at the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the National Mall, which opened Saturday. Former President George W. Bush, who signed the bill to create the museum, also addressed the crowd, describing slavery as America’s original sin and noting that “a great nation does not hide its history.” But the first black president speaking at the opening of a national museum dedicated to black American history was bound to be a historic moment in its own right, and Obama did not disappoint. He opened with a heartbreaking example of the ways America has chosen to tell its own story over the years, describing a block of stone that is now on display in the new museum:
On top of this stone sits a historical marker, weathered by the ages, and 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 1,000 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.
Obama described the museum as a place where American history might be reframed and put into context, telling the story of “the president but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the optimist seeking to overthrow that status quo, the teacher or the cook alongside the statesman.”
He also invoked the protests happening nationwide over the deaths of black men at the hands of police, saying that the museum was “the place to understand how protests and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other.” Obama hoped the museum might “help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in places like Ferguson and Charlotte.” And he saluted Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights activist turned congressman whose story, he hoped, would inspire young activists:
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.
Lewis, whose skull was fractured when Alabama State Troopers beat him on Bloody Sunday, sponsored the bill to create the museum with then-Sen. Sam Brownback. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is open to the public with same-day timed entry passes beginning Monday. Watch Obama’s full speech above.