WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, speaking Saturday at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said the gleaming bronze beacon on the National Mall “tells an essential part of our American story.”
It’s a story, the nation’s first black president said, that “sometimes is overlooked.”
In reflective remarks that noted recent strife over police shootings of black men, most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina, Obama said that while the new Smithsonian museum won’t end discrimination, it offers historical context to the nation’s racial divisions and disparities, and could spark needed dialogue.
“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” he said. “It helps us better understand the lives of, yes, the president, but also the slave; the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo.
“... And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together.”
In America today, Obama said people can wear an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt — a reference to Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in Staten Island who died after an officer put him in an apparent chokehold — and still “grieve for police officers” killed in the line of duty.
Obama conjured the image of slaves being torn from their families on the auction block, and said a “clear-eyed view of history makes us uncomfortable. But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we can learn and grow.”
Former President George W. Bush, who signed legislation in 2003 authorizing the museum, urged all Americans to visit.
“It shows our commitment to truth,” Bush said at the dedication. “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
A mix of celebrities and dignitaries, U.S. Supreme Court justices and politicians, were on hand for the outdoor ceremony, with the three-tiered, 400,000-square-foot museum looming above.
Thousands flocked to the National Mall to mark the historic occasion, with throngs of people standing on the grounds of the nearby Washington Monument.
Onlookers cheered celebrity speakers, including Oprah Winfrey, who contributed $21 million to the museum, and actors Will Smith, Angela Bassett and Robert DeNiro. Singers Patti LaBelle and Stevie Wonder were among those who performed.
The ceremony ended with the ringing of the historic Freedom Bell from First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia. The church was organized in 1776 by slaves.
Pulling the 500-pound cast-steel bell’s rope were the president and first lady Michelle Obama, and people representing four generations of the Bonner family, including 99-year-old matriarch Ruth, the daughter of a slave.
Moments later, church bells could be heard throughout the city.
Three days of festivities marking the museum opening began Friday and continue through Sunday.
After the dedication, those fortunate enough to have passes entered the museum. Among them was Anne Ashmore-Hudson, a retired psychologist from Washington, D.C.
She was struck by an exhibit — “Making a Way Out of No Way” — that detailed how blacks fought for educational opportunities in the face of discrimination and institutional barriers.
“It’s a history that hasn’t been told,” said Ashmore-Hudson, a charter museum member and contributor.
At another exhibit, a bucket that was used to wash the feet of a civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was displayed.
“Someone kept that bucket,” marveled Ashmore-Hudson — a telling sign of just how important King was to black people.