President Obama dedicated the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday morning with celebrities and thousands of others, calling it a monument to the patriotism of black citizens that should help white Americans understand current protests over police shootings of minorities.
Mr. Obama expressed hope that the new museum on the National Mall “can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in places like Ferguson and Charlotte.”
“It can also help black visitors appreciate the fact that not only is this younger generation carrying on traditions of the past, but within the white communities across the nation, we see the sincerity of law-enforcement officers who, in fits and starts, are struggling to understand and are trying to do the right thing,” Mr. Obama said.
The ceremony hit a partisan note when entertainer Patti LaBelle, wrapping up the song “A Change is Gonna Come,” raised a fist and proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton!”
Mr. Obama also sounded a tone of his past as a community organizer, saying the museum “won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately insure that justice is always colorblind.”
“Those things are up to us,” the president said. “It requires speaking out and organizing and voting until our values are fully reflected in our laws and in our policies and our communities.”
Among those attending the dedication on the National Mall were Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Vice President Joseph R. Biden, former President Bill Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey, entertainers Stevie Wonder and Will Smith and Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat.
Former President George W. Bush, who signed legislation authorizing the museum in 2003, said its lesson “is that all Americans share a past and a future.”
“A great nation does not hide its history,” Mr. Bush said. “It faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth, that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains.”
Mr. Bush also said the museum “shows America’s capacity to change.”
“The journey is still not complete, but this museum will inspire us to go farther and get there faster,” he said.
Chief Justice Roberts said the museum documents the “shame and hope” of Supreme Court rulings on the way to equal justice for African Americans: the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that held a black man was not a U.S. citizen and could not sue for his freedom, the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1896 that upheld racial segregation laws and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that struck down segregated schools.
“This museum provides a place for us to learn what life was like for the brave individuals who brought those cases to the Supreme Court,” Justice Roberts said.
The museum, located adjacent to the Washington Monument, chronicles the black experience in America, from slavery through the Civil War, from segregation to the civil rights era. As the nation’s first black president, Mr. Obama said the museum shows how African-American history “is not somehow separate from our larger American story.”
“This museum tells the story of so many patriots,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We’re America. And that’s what this museum explains. Our stories have shaped every corner of our culture.”
With blacks having rioted in Charlotte this week over the fatal police shooting of a black man, Mr. Obama said the message of the museum is “a story that perhaps needs to be told now more than ever.”
“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 black-gloved fist, how we can wear an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers,” the president said.
With only three months left in office, Mr. Obama grew tearful as he told the audience how he hopes one day to bring his grandchildren to visit the museum and the Lincoln Memorial.
“Together we’ll learn about ourselves as Americans — our sufferings, our delights and our triumphs,” he said. “And we’ll walk away better for it; better because we better grasp the truth.”
“We’ll 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 for this country, and the ideals on which it is founded. For we, too, are American.”