'A Great Nation Does Not Hide its History': Presidents Bush, Obama Celebrate Opening of African-American History Museum in DC

Posted: Sep 24, 2016 1:30 PM

The National Museum of African American History and Culture officially joined the Smithsonian collection on Saturday. The museum, which has been over a decade in coming, boasts 37,000 objects from the contributions of generations of African-Americans. 

Three U.S. presidents were in attendance at the museum's opening ceremony. George W. Bush and wife Laura joined President Obama and the First Lady on stage, while Bill Clinton enjoyed the festivities as an audience member. 

Bush, who authorized the construction of the museum in 2003, said he was "honored" to be there. 

"I hope all our fellow citizens come and look at this place," he said. "It is fabulous." 

Bush, like many of the day's speakers, saved special recognition for the museum's Founding Director Lonnie Bunch. Bush said that Bunch's "drive, energy and optimism" were key in making the ambitious project a reality.

Bush said that while he and Congress had many points of contention during his presidency, "this is one issue where we strongly agreed." The museum, he said, is a national treasure that "now stands where it has always belonged - on the National Mall."

The significance of the museum, the former president said, is three-fold. One, it shows a "commitment to truth." 

"A great nation does not hide its history," he said. "It faces it's flaws and corrects them."

"The price of our union was America's original sin," he added. 

Two, the museum proves America's capacity to change. "The journey to justice is not yet complete," he noted. 

Thirdly, Bush said the new museum showcases the talent of some of our finest Americans, sharing that he's drawn some personal inspiration from guitarist Chuck Barry and baseball player Willie Mays.

"No telling of American history is neither complete or accurate without acknowledging" these Americans, Bush concluded.

President Obama echoed many of Bush's sentiments in his remarks. 

The museum, the president explained, does not just represent our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve “wrested triumph from tragedy.”

The museum’s story, he surmised, needs to be told now more than ever.

While the building and the history it tells “cannot solve gun violence” or discrimination, “it has shown us America has moved forward.”

The president weighed in on current race relations, especially the relationship between police officers and civilians. He acknowledged we have far to go to heal that relationship, but that it is possible for an activist to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt while still grieving for fallen cops.  

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a former civil rights icon, also spoke, noting he hopes museum visitors will come away with a greater understanding of the dignity and worth of every human being.

Other notable guests included actors Samuel L. Jackson, David Oyelowo, and Robert De Niro, producer Shonda Rhimes, singer Patti Labelle, and Oprah Winfrey, who donated millions to the museum as it was being constructed.

Members of the Bonner family helped the Obamas ring in the museum with the Freedom bell from the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, VA.