World / Reporter's Journal

African-American museum a reminder of an unfinished cause

By CHEN WEIHUA (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-09-26 11:39

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, not far from my office in the National Press Building, opened on Sept 24 after a construction stage of more than four years. Housed in a beautiful structure, the museum tells the American history through the experience of African Americans.

At the opening ceremony, US President Barack Obama, the first African-American president, quoted historian John Hope Franklin as saying that "good history is a good foundation for a better present and future".

"He understood the best history doesn't just sit behind a glass case. It helps us to understand what's outside the case," Obama said.

In fact, the museum, while being built, has witnessed numerous gatherings and protests of African Americans such as against the police shooting of unarmed black men.

Throughout most of the past week, the top news across the nation has been the shooting to death of black man Keith Scott by police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, last Tuesday. The incident has sparked a new wave of protests in several US cities against police brutality.

The video of the shooting was released while the museum was holding its opening ceremony on the National Mall, attended by several US presidents, past and present.

The Charlotte shooting followed the high-profile cases of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in late 2012 and the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, both in 2014, all caused by police officers.

The unfinished cause of African Americans has been constantly reminded as I covered anniversaries in the past years of March in Washington when Martin Luther King Jr gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

On Saturday, several of us toured the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where on one site, US President Abraham Lincoln delivered his well-known Gettysburg Address.

While the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued by Lincoln on Jan 1, 1863, set free more than 3 million enslaved African Americans in the South, the Gettysburg Address on Nov 19 that year marked the beginning of the end of the bloody Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 Americans.

Both the "I Have a Dream" and Gettysburg Address are famous among Chinese. Both have been used in Chinese middle school textbooks. Then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin even recited part of the Gettysburg Address during an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" anchor Michael Wallace in 2000.

More than a few decades ago, the TV series Roots and movie Uncle Tom's Cabin had been dubbed into Chinese and broadcast in China.

The unfinished cause of African Americans is not limited to their protests against police brutality. African Americans fare poorly in education and income equality, and there is a disproportionately high African- American population in US prisons. Many neighborhoods in the US still look like a place of racial segregation.

For some African Americans, the memory of slavery still hasn't gone away. When I stayed with an African-American host family in Detroit in 1998, the couple showed me the photo of their great grandparents, who were slaves. They still refused to go to churches, calling it a place white men used to control the blacks.

"A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city, or every rural hamlet. It won't eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately ensure that justice is always color-blind. It won't wipe away every instance of discrimination in a job interview, or a sentencing hearing, or folks trying to rent an apartment," Obama said on Saturday.

The race issue is likely to be a key topic when Republican and Democratic party candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate for the first time on Monday evening.

A Pew Center survey released in June finds that black and white Americans differ widely in views on race relations. While 45 percent of whites said race relations in the US are generally bad, the rate is 61 percent among blacks and 58 percent among Latinos.

At the same time, only 28 percent of whites said Obama has made progress on race relations while 51 percent of blacks and 38 percent of Latinos said he has done so.

About 60 percent of Americans say more changes are needed to achieve racial equality. Only 30 percent say the country has already made enough changes. Meanwhile, 43 percent express doubt that the country will ever make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights with whites.

The opening of the new museum is a fresh reminder that the African American fight for equality is far from over.

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