Obama also said he hoped the museum would help people bridge divides that were re-exposed by the latest fatal, police-involved shootings of black men.
The country’s first black president, Obama was scheduled to preside over an outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday morning for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was built on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument.
“The thing about this museum is that it’s … more than just telling stories about the famous. It’s not just about the icons,” Obama said at a White House reception celebrating the museum. He added that the museum has plenty of space to feature black icons like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and others.
“What makes the museum so powerful and so visceral is that it’s the story of all of us, the folks whose names you never heard of, but whose contributions, day after day, decade after decade, combined to push us forward and the entire nation forward,” Obama said, mentioning maids, porters and others who stood up for themselves despite daily assaults on their dignity.
Obama pointed out that the hundreds of people who were invited to the reception in the Grand Foyer included people like artists Quincy Jones and Phylicia Rashad, astronaut Mae Jemison and Oprah Winfrey, “the woman who owns the universe.” Civil rights legends like Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Jesse Jackson attended, along with representatives of a new generation of activists, including DeRay Mckesson of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Everyone in the room can think of an unsung hero, Obama said. “But the point is that all of us cannot forget that the only reason that we’re standing here is because somebody, somewhere stood up for us,” he said. “Stood up when it was risky. Stood up when it was not popular. And somehow, standing up together, managed to change the world.”
Obama said the museum opening this weekend, following the shootings of black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina, would allow Americans to “put our current circumstances in a historical context.”
“My hope is that, as people are seeing what’s happened in Tulsa or Charlotte on television, and perhaps are less familiar with not only the history of the African-American experience but also how recent some of these challenges have been, upon visiting the museum, may step back and say: ‘I understand. I sympathize. I empathize. I can see why folks might feel angry and I want to be part of the solution as opposed to resisting change,'” the president said.
Obama took his wife, Michelle, their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, on a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum earlier this month. He and the first lady returned Thursday, where they were interviewed by “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts.
The museum features Obama’s groundbreaking presidency. He told Roberts the museum put in context his presidency and what he has tried to do for the country and “explains that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.”
He said he and Mrs. Obama were “humbled” to be included “but I think we think of ourselves as a pretty small part of the story.”
Mrs. Obama, a descendant of slaves, said the museum is “one of the few places on earth that tells the complete story of my existence” and said it will be a “point of pride for this nation.”