Michelle Obama Embraces George W. Bush at Opening of First National Museum Devoted to African-American History
President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush united on Saturday for the dedication for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History
The legislation for the establishment of the museum – which is the first national museum devoted exclusively to the history and culture of African-Americans – was first authorized by Bush in December 2003. It’s the 19th and the newest of the Smithsonians.
“We’re not a burden on America or a stain on America or an object of shame and pity for America – We are America,” Obama said. “And that’s what this museum explains. Hopefully, this museum makes us talk to each other and listen to each other and see each other.”
More than 100 years in the making, the museum was first proposed in 1915 when African-American veterans of the Civil War asked for a way to commemorate America’s black experience.
Its location on the National Mall is only steps away from a monument dedicated to slaveholder president Andrew Jackson – fitting, as the museum addresses the complex relationship between the United States and African-Americans.
The president opened the museum by ringing of the historic Freedom Bell from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia – which was organized in 1776 by slaves.
“This National Museum helps us understand a greater picture of who we are,” Obama continued. “It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of a president – but also the slave. The industrialist, but also the worker. The teacher or the cook, alongside the story of the statesman. By knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together.
“It reaffirms that all of us are America,” he added.
George W. Bush made similar statements ahead of OBama.
“The lesson of this museum is that all Americans share a past – and a future,” he said, Pointing to how the museum showcases America’s commitment to truth, capacity for change and talent of some of its finest Americans.
“By staying true to our principles, righting injustice, and encouraging the empowerment of all, we will be an even greater nation for generations to come,” he added.
Laura Bush – who also sits on the board of the museum – was quick to praise its director, Dr. Lonnie Bunch.
“I’m thrilled to be here today, this is such a really terrific day,” she said. “Lonnie, look what you’ve done! You and your team have truly achieved a monumental achievement. Congratulations.”
The president’s remarks on Saturday were similar to those he said on Friday, while hosting a reception for the museum’s opening at the White House attended by nearly 750 elite community members including Quincy Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Harry Belafonte, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Kobe Bryant, Al Sharpton, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer.
There, he also addressed how the museum provides context for the racial debates happening in our current racial climate.
“You know, the timing of this is fascinating,” Obama explained. “Because in so many ways, it is the best of times – but in many ways these are also troubled times. History doesn’t always move in a straight line. And without vigilance, we can go backwards as well as forwards.”
“My hope is that black folks watching those same images on television and then seeing the history represented in this museum can say to themselves the struggles we’re going through today is connected to the past,” he said. “And yet all that progress tells me that I cannot and will not sink into despair. Because if we join hands and we do things right, if we maintain our dignity and continue to appeal to the better angels of this nation, progress will be made.”