Justice Louis Brandeis offered that the remedy to hate speech is more speech, not enforced silence. The newest monument on the National Mall responds eloquently to the current statuary crisis by providing “more speech” regarding the Confederacy.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened less than a year ago. The Smithsonian Institute has since timed admission passes to 2.5 million visitors. I was one of them this week.
The doors open to a quote from John Hope Franklin: “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”
Telling this shared story slowly emerges as an act of courage, then generosity, and finally magnanimity. Each moment is captured along the way with first person accounts. Visitors are welcomed to photograph almost everything in the museum, excepting only the exhibit that shows Emmett Till’s casket, at the request of his mother. First-person accounts carry the day.
The history explained through two subterranean levels is not well understood, but now that 2.5 million have been told “the unvarnished truth,” that may begin to change. The cultural contributions of African Americans organize the top floors, with a Contemplative Court in the middle.
I spent half the day in the museum and barely made it back to the ground floor. The upper reaches will have to wait for my next visit. I cried several times. It was that powerful. How was I able to feel sorrow without debilitating shame? That’s what I found most remarkable.
Slavery has always existed. Trade has too. But no one before 1500 AD ever contemplated slave trade. Freedom and inalienable rights are familiar to us, but buying and selling other humans was the other “new idea” that made our country possible.
Europe built its wealth on gold. The earliest American settlers built power and prestige with sugar. Grow your own wealth, and it could be unlimited. Rice, tobacco, and coffee followed, thanks to plentiful land, slave labor, and liberal trade.
Then came cotton. And southern plantation owners felt squeezed. On one hand, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin could increase production 50-fold, and the Louisiana Purchase opened vast new territory for “growing wealth.” But slave trade was falling out of favor in Europe.
America ended its participation in the TransAtlantic Slave Trade in 1808, but continued to allow slave trade in states where it was legal. President Abraham Lincoln tried to reassure southern business interests in his first inaugural address. He claimed no interest in meddling with their trade practices.
How could the federal government forbid importing something (it was a “thing”) that wasn’t illegal? Southern economies couldn’t continue growing wealth without more slaves. They saw the federal government interfering unfairly. The Civil War was, in fact, an insurrection originally based on states’ rights.
It may have been Frederick Douglass who convinced Lincoln that a stance against slavery could tip the balance in what was already a protracted war. Douglass urged Lincoln to declare an end to slavery and enlist African Americans into a “liberating army.”
Lincoln saw the military advantage of inciting 10 percent of the country’s population against his foes. His Emancipation Proclamation freed only the slaves held in states of the Confederacy. What began as a war for economic control and national unity was transformed into a war for liberation and racial equality.
Zooming ahead to 1955, a 15-year-old African American from Chicago traveled to Mississippi to visit relatives. He may have forgotten to address the woman in charge of the grocery store with the salutary “Ma’am.”
Emmett Till was hunted down, killed with a hatchet, and thrown into a river. His body was found, and his mother insisted that the funeral should be with an open casket, so that everyone could see what had been done to her son. Newspapers ran a photo of the child’s mutilated face. Till’s assailants were cleared of any crime. The battle for Civil Rights became unavoidable after those choices in 1955.
There’s more to the history and more to the museum, but Mamie Till’s choices, in 1955 and in 2003, months before she died, show how telling “the unvarnished truth” can sometimes rely on a single person’s courage.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.