The long fight to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been open for a year now. The museum has received rave reviews, and it has quickly become one of the Smithsonian’s biggest attractions, with over 2.5 million visits in its first year. The museum’s mission — to “explore what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture” — clearly resonates with the public.

Ironically, as the nation celebrates the museum’s anniversary, we are also debating the meaning of Confederate monuments.

Perhaps this dissonance was inevitable.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released “The Birth of a Nation.” This epic (and racist) motion picture portrayed antebellum blacks as perfectly contented slaves, Confederate soldiers as heroes, and black Union soldiers as brutes intent on dominating whites and molesting white women. It lionized the Ku Klux Klan for lynching blacks and preventing black men from voting. Upon the movie’s release, The Confederate Veteran magazine gushed about its depiction of the Klan having “added an unwritten amendment to the Constitution of the United States . . . [that] the American nation shall forever have a White man’s government.”

Horrified blacks and sympathetic whites protested this whitewashed version of slavery, the Civil War and of black soldiers and citizens. In response to “The Birth of a Nation,” Carter G. Woodson founded the organization that would later give us Black History Month. But something else quite significant also happened: In 1916, blacks began organizing to build a memorial to African-American soldiers and sailors. The mission quickly broadened to construct a “national memorial building” to document all forms of “Negro achievement and contributions to America.” The organizers of the proposed African-American memorial blasted its counter-narrative to Griffith’s movie across the top of flyers…

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