By LONNIE G. BUNCH III, New York Times, JUNE 23, 2017
image (not from article) from
The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American
History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most
feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally
offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America:
We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in
us, and we do this against incredible odds.
The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was
found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era
of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in
front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to
African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers
fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.
That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of
America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an
America where freedom and fairness reign. [JB emphasis] I see the nooses as evidence that those
visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America
continues to this very day.
The people responsible knew that their acts would not be taken lightly. A noose
is a symbol of the racial violence and terror that African-Americans have confronted
throughout American history and of the intensity of resistance we’ve faced to any
measure of racial equality. During slavery, one of the main purposes of lynching was
to deter the enslaved from escaping to freedom. But lynching did not end with
slavery; it was also a response to the end of slavery. It continued from the 1880s
until after the end of World War I, with more than 100 people lynched each year. So
prevalent was this atrocity that between 1920 and 1938, the N.A.A.C.P. displayed a
banner at its national headquarters that read simply, “A man was lynched
Lynching was not just a phenomenon of the American South or the Ku Klux
Klan. And in many places, as black people fought for inclusion in American life,
lynchings became brutal spectacles, drawing thousands of onlookers who posed for
photographs with the lifeless bodies. This collective memory explains why the noose
has become a symbol of white supremacy and racial intimidation.
So, what does it mean to have found three nooses on Smithsonian grounds in 2017?
A noose inside a Missouri high school? A noose on the campus of Duke University?
Another at American University?
As a historian, who also happens to be old enough to remember “Whites Only”
signs on motels and restaurants that trumpeted the power of laws enforcing
segregation, I posit that it means we must lay to rest any notion that racism is not
still the great divide.
As someone who has experienced the humiliating sting of racial epithets and the
pain of a policeman’s blow — simply because I was black and in a neighborhood not
my own — I would argue that it answers a naïve and dangerous question that I hear
too often: Why can’t African-Americans get over past discrimination?
The answer is that discrimination is not confined to the past. Nor is the African-American
commitment to American ideals in the face of discrimination and hate.
The exhibitions inside the museum combine to form a narrative of a people who
refused to be broken by hatred and who have always found ways to prod America to
be truer to the ideals of its founders.
In the process of curating these experiences, I have acquired, examined and
interpreted objects that stir feelings of intense pain. Anger and sadness are always
parts of this work, but I never let them dominate it. Instead, I use them to help me
connect with the people who have suffered and continue to suffer immeasurable
pain and injustice, while clinging to their humanity and their vision of a better
I see the nooses in the same way. They are living history [sic - JB]. Viewed through this
lens, they are no less a part of the story the museum tells than the Klan robes, the
slave shackles small enough to fit a child, the stretch of rope used to lynch a
Maryland man in 1931 or the coffin used to bury the brutally murdered Emmett Till.
If you want to know how African-Americans continue to persevere and fight for
a better America in the face of this type of hatred, you need only visit the museum,
where the noose has been removed but the rest of the remarkable story of our
commitment to overcome remains. Anyone who experiences the National Museum
of African American History and Culture should leave with that realization, as well
as the understanding that this story is continuing. The cowardly act of leaving a
symbol of hate in the midst of a tribute to our survival conveyed that message as well
as any exhibit ever could.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, a historian, author, curator and educator, is the founding director
of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.