The new National Museum of African American History opens with a bell rung in unity.

The recent grand opening of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., was a much-needed moment of national unity and self-reflection. In the highly partisan capital of an increasingly polarized nation, Americans of every race, creed and party paused to acknowledge and celebrate a part of our history that, in the words of President Obama, “has at times been overlooked.” That will be much harder to do now given the fittingly prominent position the museum occupies on the National Mall and in our national imagination. “This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” the president said during his opening remarks. “It helps us better understand the lives, yes 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. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other.”

It is no secret that mutual understanding is in short supply. In spite of our common progress, the country is still beset by the consequences of our original sin: lingering racial prejudice and outright bias, and deep distrust between Americans of different races and between large swaths of our citizenry and those charged with protecting and serving them. Still, in spite of it all, Donald J. Trump’s claim that African-Americans “are absolutely in the worst shape they've ever been in before” belies the hopeful and prosperous reality. While we may not have reached the mountaintop, we are a long way from the deepest valley. That much was obvious during the opening ceremonies for the museum, when the first African-American president of the United States was joined onstage by the 99-year-old daughter of a Mississippi slave. Ruth Bonner, her back arched by age, her heart filled with youthful determination, joined the president in ringing a bell to inaugurate the museum, reminding every teary-eyed observer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s injunction to let freedom ring from every mountainside.

Advertisement

The occasion also afforded an opportunity to see that endangered species, bipartisanship, in its natural habitat. The photo of a tender, affectionate embrace between George W. Bush, who signed the legislation creating the museum, and Michelle Obama, the first lady, went viral. "It's a great photo that demonstrates genuine bipartisanship," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "At one time they were political enemies, but they came together for a good cause. In the midst of a nasty election season, people are hungry for anything that can unify us."

The truth is that people are always hungry for anything that can unify us. That is, in fact, the story that the new museum tells. This is especially important to remember during those times when the social fabric seems especially frayed. “Politics is an expression of our compelling need to live as one,” Pope Francis said on Capitol Hill last year, “in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” In other words, e pluribus unum is not simply a motto. It is our reality as well as our common destiny.

•••

The editors and staff of America mourn the passing of Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., an associate editor of this review from 1995 to 2009, who died on Sept. 23 at the age of 74. Father Linehan’s byline did not often appear in these pages, but his dedication to his work informed every issue he helped to edit. He was a thoroughly decent soul whose quick wit and encyclopedic mind made him a valued and cherished colleague. R.I.P.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 2 months ago
It's a real shame that America Magazine would discuss the opening of the Museum while staying silent about the immense positive contribution the Catholic Church, Diocesan, Jesuit, as well as Religous Women and Men, Clerks Regular, Friars, Sisters, Brothers have made over many years. This is especially poignant in view of the fact that Catholics were a largely despised minority. Equally hated by Nativists like the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks and Catholics were hated... Fr Matt S.J. You can do better, in my opinion...
James MacGregor
1 year 2 months ago
Hey William! While I agree with the sense of your remarks, I sense that they could "open up a can of worms" of strongly biased exchanges. The American Church and its members have unquestionably made major contributions. I think of wonderful people whom I have known such as Fr. John LaFarge with the civil rights movement and his unfortunately terminated encyclical against racial hatred, and Fr. Benjamin Massy with Labor Negotiations. However, when we look at American history we see many Christian groups and people who have made major contributions. For example, the Methodists and Baptists spread Christianity to the American West. In our lifetimes we have seen the positive moral impact made on our country by Billy Graham and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jim MacGregor
William Rydberg
1 year 2 months ago
Mr MacGregor, I respectfully disagree. In my opinion the early American and Canadian Catholic histories has been neglected by government. For the level and amount of raw prejudice that Catholics experienced has been overshadowed in recent times by the Kennedy phenomenon. Vestiges of that prejudice stretch all of the way up here to Canada. Recently, there was an article on landowner restrictions in a historic part of Hamilton, Ontario called Westdale that stipulated certain ethnic groups (read Catholic countries) could not own land. The Ottawa, Erie and Welland Canals were fever pits in which many Catholics died. Anecdotally, Charles Dickens Son travelled CANADA in those days and writes of a vivid account of prejudice by the Toronto "Orange Lodge" with respect to minority Catholics enjoying a steamboat tour. Although equal taxpayers, it wasn't until the 1980's in CANADA that public funding of High Schools was passed in the Ontario Parliament. To this day, it is constantly being challenged although supported by Canada's Constitution. I am not seeking to "stir anything up". However, find it interesting that the current Museum experienced similar comments over the years. I imagine that Catholic Parochial Schools still do not get full funding to this day in many USA States. There is much more to be said, but space does not permit. Like I said previously, the KKK didn't see a difference between blacks and Catholic. Something, I am sure many Catholics are ignorant of to this day. Likely due to poor history texts. One ought to read accounts written about Catholics in the New York Times-IMHO they read as though Catholics were uncivilized (in many accounts of happenings in Canada and the USA). To their everlasting credit, African Americans are more sensitive to their collective history. Bottom line, life was easier if you were White Episcopalian... in Christ,
James MacGregor
1 year 2 months ago
William, I have no disagreement with any of your content per-se. I guess I was moved - without saying so - that Fr. Malone's article is about his experience at the museum. HIs statement, "It is no secret that mutual understanding is in short supply." seems to be broad brush at what you and I have observed, and not exclusive of Roman Catholics. ;-) jim

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

The ‘chaos candidate’ is now our pyromaniac president.
Margot PattersonDecember 11, 2017
At first Father Flanagan rejected the idea of a film, but he signed on after he saw a script that he liked.
Kevin LawlerDecember 11, 2017
People celebrate Nov. 21 outside parliament after hearing that President Robert Mugabe resigned in Harare, Zimbabwe. All Zimbabweans should have a voice in the country's governance following Mugabe's 37-year presidency, and the new government should embrace diversity, Zimbabwe's bishops said. (CNS photo/Kim Ludbrook, EPA)
The Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement urging calm, restraint and patience during what they called “most delicate times.”
Anthony EganDecember 11, 2017
A reflection for the second Monday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 11, 2017