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Watch Rep. John Lewis and President Obama speak at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I’ve been waiting to see this day for 15 years — and in some ways, my whole life.
I’ve loved history ever since I was a little boy. Growing up in the oppressive shadow of Jim Crow, my teachers would ask me to cut out photographs I found in magazines and newspapers of Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, and other marchers for justice. I read about Booker T. Washington, reveled in the sounds of the Jubilee Singers, and prayed for a King to reach the mountaintop.
To me, history is the foundation of a powerful legacy, and it is important to tell the stories of the millions of black men and women, boys and girls, who labored and sacrificed, and continue the struggle, to build this great nation.
When I learned of the decades-long effort to establish a national museum dedicated to preserving that too often untold story, I readily joined the effort. Every session of Congress for 15 years, I introduced a bill to create this national museum.
While the journey has been long, today the history of African Americans will finally take its place on the National Mall next to the monuments to Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson — exactly where it belongs.
It is important that The National Museum of African American History and Culture tells the unvarnished truth of America’s history — a story that speaks to the soul of our nation, but one few Americans know.
It’s a reminder that 400 years of history can’t be buried; its lessons must be learned. By bringing the uncomfortable parts of our past out of the shadows, we can better understand what divides us and seek to heal those problems through our unity.
If we look at the glass-topped casket that displayed the brutalized body of Emmett Till and hear his story, we may better understand the exasperation and anger Americans feel today over the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice.
If we see that an everyday leather wallet is what’s left of Harry T. Moore — a man who fought for the right to vote and died in a bombing meant to silence his activism on Christmas Day in 1951 – perhaps we will see why so many are fighting to protect any encroachment on that most sacred right today.
And as we look at the exhibit dedicated to an African American who now leads the free world from a White House built by black slaves, we can better understand the unshakeable optimism that has defined his belief that — with dedicated work and a little good trouble — we can help create a society that is more fair and more just, which benefits all Americans.
This museum casts a light on some of the most inspiring — and uniquely American — heroes who were denied equal rights but often laid down their lives to defend this nation in every generation. Often they profited least from the struggle they were willing to die for because they believed that the promises of true democracy should belong to us all, equally and without question.
I hope you will join me and President Obama for the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture today.
When you hear about the heroes memorialized in its halls, you may discover the depths of the invincible American spirit. As we learn and confront this history together, we can begin to build one inclusive, and truly democratic family — the American family.
In this week’s address, President Obama commemorated the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The President recognized the museum for celebrating the many accomplishments of the African American community – and for telling the fuller story of America by facing the uncomfortable truths of our Nation’s history all while embracing the knowledge that America is a constant work in progress.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture not only tells the African American story – it tells the American story. By telling the fuller account of the American story, the President said, the museum will give all of us a chance to reflect and set the course for generations to come.
Watch President Obama speak at a White House reception for the Museum of African American History & Culture at 4:20 pm ET.
Tomorrow, President Obama will welcome our newest addition to the National Mall: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, a museum dedicated to telling a fuller story of America through the history of African Americans.
As we celebrate the central role that African Americans have played in the life and history of our country, we also celebrate the African Americans whose labor and service helped shape one of the most powerful pillars of our democracy – the People’s House.
Ahead of the dedication ceremony, President Obama will deliver remarks at a White House reception for the museum’s opening. Here’s a look at some of what guests who are attending the reception will see as they walk through the residence and experience the African American history of the White House.
The Slaves and Servants Who Built and Served the White House
The White House was built by slaves. Some of the slaves’ names were Peter, Tom, Ben, and Harry, some were skilled carpenters, and two of them were enslaved to the chief architect of the White House, James Hoban.
The Diplomatic Reception Room was known as the “Servant’s Hall,” where African American slaves and servants lived. One of the most well-known slaves who worked under President James Madison was Paul Jennings, who wrote an early White House memoir and was involved in an 1848 plan to undertake a large-scale escape of slaves from Washington, D.C. aboard the schooner Pearl.
Front Seat to History
For years, the White House has recognized filmmakers and actors who have influenced American history by showcasing notable films in the Family Theater, hosting screenings at the White House, honoring recipients of the Presidential Medals of Freedom and Arts, and organizing other events featuring aspiring youth talent. President Obama has continued that tradition by honoring creative works that have brought about conversations on race and inclusion in America. From screening of Red Tails for retired Tuskegee Airmen, to honoring Sidney Poitier, to hosting panel discussions on shows that address slavery such as Roots and Underground, the White House has highlighted the importance of recognizing America’s past, no matter how dark, and how it has helped to shape our future.
Keeping the Drum Beat Going
Throughout history, the White House has hosted performances from African American artists who, through music, have expressed the full range of the American experience.
Before there was Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, Thomas Greene Bethune, also known as “Blind Tom,” was a musical prodigy and the first African American artist to have performed at the White House at the young age of 10 for President James Buchanan. Born a slave in 1849, Tom was known to have played the piano like Beethoven and Mozart and could repeat long sheet music after only hearing it once.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers — a choir from the Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee that first opened its doors during the Civil War for former slaves — became the first African American choir to perform at the White House in 1882. One of their songs, “Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” was said to have moved President Chester A. Arthur to tears. The group was awarded the 2008 National Medal of Arts during the Administration of President George W. Bush.
Protect and Serve
African Americans have been an integral part of protecting our safety and that of the President of the United States. Although many who served were not recognized at the time and faced hurdles because of the color of their skin, that didn’t stop them from honorably fulfilling their duties for this nation. From the veterans who risked their lives for comrades, to the first African American members of the Armed Forces who stood alone amongst a regiment of all white soldiers, to the slaves who fought for the promise of equality, to the Secret Service members whose sacrifice often went unrecognized, these heroes believed in a brighter future even when the odds were stacked against them.
A list of African American Medal of Honor recipients is on display in the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
An invitation to the White House has held both symbolic power and a platform to voice the American experience.
The quiet sacrifices White House staff members have made in service of our country often reached beyond the long hours and high demands of their jobs. In face of the challenges they faced, their perseverance to show up every day to work and see their contribution as part of a vision larger than themselves paved the way for change.
African American butlers and housekeepers have served the White House for decades. Their dedication and resilience behind the scenes inevitably empowered others, as portrayed in Lee Daniels’ film adaptation of the experience of African American butlers in the White House.
BLOCK QUOTE: “The most memorable moment I had at the White House is seeing my mother walk up North Portico, all alone, to visit me and George and Barbara Bush in their personal quarters…She was so nervous, but enjoyed herself. I said to myself well, my mother is just as important as all those kings and queens. I’m going to have my queen do it.” – Former White House Butler George Hannie
This summer, the world was shocked by a photo of a young Syrian boy, sitting silently in an ambulance after an air strike on Aleppo, covered in blood and dust. The boy, Omran, became an iconic image of the toll the conflict in Syria is taking on its people and the ongoing refugee crisis it has created.
In a politically caustic environment, it is not surprising that some have reacted with fear and suspicion to the idea of welcoming refugees to our shores. But not Alex. Alex is six years old and lives just outside of New York City with his mom, dad, and little sister Catherine. When Alex saw what had happened to Omran, he sat down at his kitchen table and wrote President Obama a letter. “Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home],” he asked. “We’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”
In the Leaders Summit on Refugees this week, President Obama shared that letter with the world leaders that had gathered together to discuss what they could do to solve the global refugee crisis.
The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness — we can all learn from Alex.
Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home]? Park in the driveway or on the street and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. Catherine, my little sister, will be collecting butterflies and fireflies for him. In my school, I have a friend from Syria, Omar, and I will introduce him to Omar. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. We can teach him English too, just like my friend Aoto from Japan.
Please tell him that his brother will be Alex who is a very kind boy, just like him. Since he won’t bring toys and doesn’t have toys Catherine will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it. I will teach him additions and subtractions in math. And he [can] smell Catherine’s lip gloss penguin which is green. She doesn’t let anyone touch it.
Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come!
Earlier this month, we accompanied President Obama to the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. It was a productive summit across the board. But perhaps the most significant moment came when President Obama and President Xi stood together and formally joined the landmark Paris Agreement, committing the two nations responsible for roughly 40 percent of global carbon emissions to take serious and sustained action to combat climate change.
For all the challenges and threats we face as a nation—from terrorist groups like ISIL and al Qaeda to increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks, from diseases like Ebola and Zika to Russian aggression in Ukraine—no threat is more terrifying in its global reach or more potentially destructive and destabilizing than climate change. The Department of Defense calls it a “threat multiplier.” The Department of Homeland Security considers it a major homeland security risk. As President Obama said in China, “the growing threat of climate change could define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge.”
That’s why, today, President Obama took another major step to address the threat of climate change by signing a Presidential Memorandum requiring the federal government to fully consider the impacts of climate change in the development and implementation of all national security policies and plans. First, the President’s memorandum directs 20 agencies from across the government to establish a dedicated working group to identify the U.S. national security priorities related to climate change. Second, it instructs these agencies to develop a Climate Change and National Security Action Plan outlining how they’ll develop and share information on these risks. Third, it directs each agency to develop strategies to address climate-related threats, from impacts on our economy to our food security to the flow of migrants and refugees. The system this memorandum puts into place will ensure that data and insights from climate science become a meaningful component of national security policymaking.
The President’s memorandum is supported by a National Intelligence Council report, also released today, which finds that climate change is already having significant impacts—and that these are “likely to pose significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades,” including straining our military operations and bases.
Already, we’ve witnessed the instability and harm caused by rising sea levels, dramatic flooding, regional droughts, extreme heat, and severe weather events in many parts of the world. A devastating drought contributed to the early unrest and eventual conflict in Syria, as water shortages and crop failures led farmers to abandon their homes in search of more stable sources of food and water. More than 100 million people now live less than one meter above sea level, and the expected pace of sea level rise means that these people will be at increasing risk during this century. In the Arctic, melting sea ice is increasing the potential for international tension as competition for the region’s vast natural resources grows. That’s why the Administration proposed in 2015 to accelerate the acquisition of a replacement heavy icebreaker for the Arctic and began planning for the construction of additional icebreakers. And this year, the Administration requested $150 million from Congress to accelerate production of a new Polar Icebreaker, and the Administration continues to call on Congress to provide this critical funding to the U.S. Coast Guard this year.
The report found that, around the world, climate change will only continue to threaten the stability of countries, heighten social and political tensions, increase health risks, jeopardize food security, and negatively impact economic growth. These effects will be especially pronounced as populations continue to concentrate in coastal areas, drought-prone regions, and other vulnerable areas.
Given the scale of this threat, it’s imperative that policymakers have clear and accurate information and assessments to weigh how the impacts of climate change will affect our national security. Just as we work to defeat any adversary before they have the ability to attack, we must similarly prepare for and mitigate the impacts of climate change. The security of our nation—and the well-being of our world—depends on it.
Over the past eight years, we’ve made incredible progress in our economic recovery. Our businesses have created more than 15 million new jobs since early 2010. Twenty million people now have the security of health coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Together, we’ve turned around an economy in freefall and put it on a stronger, more durable course.
And last week, we got even more great news: the policies we’ve put in place since the recession have started to pay off in real ways for American families. Take a look at these charts:
Last year, across every race and age group in America, incomes rose and the poverty rate fell. Folks’ typical household incomes rose by about $2,800 — which is the fastest rate on record. The good news is that it went up for everybody, with folks at the middle and bottom of incomes seeing the largest gains, and folks at the very top seeing the smallest gains.
By so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was eight years ago.
We lifted 3.5 million people out of poverty, including one million children – the largest one-year drop in almost 50 years. Poverty went down across all racial and ethnic groups.
Now, we know that inequality is still too high. We know that a lot of folks still feel like they’re treading water. There’s still so much more we could do to grow the economy, get wages rising faster, and slow the trend of inequality that’s been on the rise for decades. That’s why I’ve called on Congress to raise the minimum wage high enough so that if somebody is working full time, they’re not living in poverty. It’s why I’ve called for investments in clean energy and infrastructure to create more secure, good-paying jobs.
So we’re not done yet. We plan to sprint through the tape to keep building an economy where all working Americans and their families can have a fair shot at opportunity and security. This has been my goal since day one as your President — and it’s what I’ll continue fighting for as long as I’m in office.
I came to the United States as a refugee when I was 11 years old. My father was a diplomat and a strong supporter of democracy in Czechoslovakia, so when the Communists took over, we were forced into exile as refugees. In November 1948, we were welcomed to the United States of America.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is the most important thing that ever happened to me. My father said that when we were in Europe during WWII people would say, “We are sorry for your troubles and hope that you have everything you need; by the way, when will you be leaving to go back home?”
But in America, people said: “We are sorry for your troubles and hope that you have everything you need; by the way, when will you become a citizen?”
America resettles more refugees than any other nation because it reflects one of our noblest traditions as a nation: providing support to those who are most vulnerable.
With the world facing the largest mass displacement on record since World War II, it has never been more important for world leaders to follow America’s example and work together to do more to support refugees.
Under President Obama, we’ve increased the number of refugees resettling this year to 85,000 – including 10,000 Syrian refugees. Starting next week, the United States will commit to resettling 110,000 refugees from around the world over the coming year.
And with refugees undergoing the most rigorous screening of any kind of traveler, he’s shown that we can welcome refugees while ensuring our own safety.
As a former Secretary of State, I can tell you that President Obama’s leadership in this global crisis is critical to our national security.
When countries with insufficient resources take in refugees, it creates more instability, not just at the frontlines of this crisis, but around the world. If we were to slam the door in the faces of refugees with certain religious backgrounds, we would defy our history and our principles of pluralism and diversity. As we talk to other nations about what more needs to be done to tackle this crisis, it’s important that President Obama is setting this example.
When I came here as a child, I will never forget sailing into New York Harbor for the first time and beholding the Statute of Liberty. I did not have to face refugee camps or the kind of danger that many refugees endure. But like all refugees, I shared a hope to live a safe life with dignity and a chance to give back to my new country.
There are currently more than 21 million refugees across the globe, part of the largest mass displacement on record since World War II. To address this global crisis, President Obama put forward a call to action in June, challenging private sector companies to provide the following:
Support for more than 6.3 million refugees across more than 20 countries
Educational opportunities for more than 80,000 refugees, including through digital content, mentorship, and classroom support
Employment opportunities for more than 220,000 refugees, including through mentorship, training, internships, and job placements
Greater financial inclusion and economic integration for more than 4 million refugees
Partnerships with more than 70 refugee-serving NGOs.
Today, 51 U.S. companies — which represent more than 2.5 million employees, more than $775 billion in annual revenue, and more than $3.2 trillion in market capitalization — have stepped up and are standing with the Administration to demonstrate that private sector innovation and resources can make a difference and catalyze real solutions. Together, they have committed to investing, donating, and raising more than $650 million.
While there is still work to be done, today’s commitment represents a significant step towards ensuring a safe haven and a new start for millions.