THIS IS NOT NEW, unfortunately. America has been killing black people in one form or another since the nation’s founding. From lynching to murder by police, the history is well-documented and contextualized in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), most poignantly with the display of Emmett Till’s casket. Till was lynched at age 14 by two white men in Money, Miss.

The African American quest for liberty and freedom is also well-represented in the Smithsonian museum. Slave rebellions. Urban uprisings. Peaceful sit-ins and marches. All manner of protests, met with state-sanctioned violence and aggression, often lethal, in the form of dogs, water hoses, batons, tear gas, or rubber bullets, depending on the decade.

 


May 29, 2020: Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington, D.C., holding signs demanding justice for George Floyd, declaring black lives matter, and denouncing white supremacy and killer cops. | Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images

 

On May 25, George Floyd, 46, was murdered by Minneapolis police. Floyd was held to the ground by police officers and stopped breathing after one of them pressed his knee down on his neck for more than eight minutes.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, and so many other killings, Americans have taken to the streets in cities across the nation to mourn them, stand up for black lives, demand prosecution of the uniformed perpetrators, and call for police accountability and reform.

After days of racially diverse protests, cultural institutions that might ordinarily avoid contentious national debates are beginning to weigh in. Countless museums have issued statements of solidarity with the black community and the protest movement that denounce police brutality and racial violence in America, some more successfully crafted than others. The messages declare support for black-led organizations and pledge programming and operations that reflect a belief in seeing and hearing black people and their concerns.

NMAAHC launched a web portal dedicated to “Talking About Race.” Historian Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director who was elevated last year to secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution, is also speaking up. He gave an interview to CBS news commenting on the state of the nation. “This is a moment that really needs to be a tipping point,” he said.

On June 1, Bunch spoke to Nora O’Donnell on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., standing about 12 feet from the CBS anchor, social distancing given the confluence of protests and the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, which is disproportionately affecting and killing people of color.

“I keep hearing the words of Ella Baker: Until the killing of a black mother’s son is considered as important to this country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.” — Lonnie Bunch

“The protest is always the way those who are voiceless speak,” Bunch said. “And so I’ve always thought that protest in some ways is the highest form of patriotism because you are really trying to make a country better.”

He then invoked the wisdom of Ella Baker (1903-1986), the civil rights leader who worked for the NAACP, helped form Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and advised and organized the young student activists who would form the membership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

“I keep hearing the words of Ella Baker, everyday, when she said, “Until the killing of a black mother’s son is considered as important to this country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest,” Bunch said.

Finally, he concluded the interview with a profound and soul-crushing statement about the arc of history, long quest for racial justice, and largely unchanged reality of the black experience in America:

“This is not new,” Bunch said. “Unfortunately, you see so many people who have in some ways had their last breath taken by the lynch rope, by the bullet, and now the knee. My concern is that as a black man I’m lucky. I’m still breathing. But as a black man in America, I wonder for how long.” CT

 


(Please note: An advertisement precedes the interview.) June 1, 2020: In response to nationwide protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch told CBS News: “The protest is always the way those who are voiceless speak.” | Video by CBS News

 

BOOKSHELF
“A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” by Lonnie G. Bunch III is a compelling and insightful read. Bunch takes readers behind-the-scenes of his more than decade-long journey envisioning and developing the museum. The incredibly detailed and intensely personal memoir sheds light on how he assembled his staff and many advisors, built the collection of objects and art, raised money, selected the architects, navigated the bureaucracy of Congress and the Smithsonian, and planned an opening celebration with three U.S. Presidents. Also consider the biography “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision” by Barbara Ransby. For children, “Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker” is forthcoming next week.

 

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