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Commentary: African American stories of unspeakable pain reverberate through US history

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Dr. Elijah Heyward III

Dr. Elijah Heyward III

I am admittedly challenged writing this op-ed amid widespread protests and an epic clash between reality and “truths we hold to be self-evident.” I am burdened by the fact that despite the strides of our forebears, we continue to experience a pandemic of racism that is hard to ignore.

During my youth, I was inspired by the history and legacy of the civil rights movement, especially its clarion call for equality, freedom and justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. underscored the following inherently American tenets in his “I Have a Dream” speech, noting: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

This note was a promise that all people would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The premise of justice being a “promissory note” that the likes of John Lewis, Bayard Rustin and Septima Poinsette Clark held America accountable for defaulting on emboldened the commitment of countless Americans to service, including me.

While our nation has made measurable strides since the 1950s and 1960s, we remain encumbered by racism and inequity in the 21st century.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have witnessed broad coalitions of brave people around the world unite to address the systemic inequalities that continue to impact people of African descent. The harsh and ever-present reality is that many cities across the country have histories defined by racial animus and discrimination that continue to impact African American communities.

The International African American Museum will honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites within this cauldron of conflict and reckoning. Although many of the stories we seek to share are informed by love and hope, they are also rooted in unspeakable pain.

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This suffering has reverberated throughout our nation’s history. We see it manifest once more with the recent cruel disregard and lack of value for humanity in the defenseless deaths of African Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. These lives, like so many before them, matter.

Taylor would have celebrated her 27th birthday on June 5.

We often look to history for guidance on how we carry on in these watershed moments. Our museum will provide an important look back and look beyond. The work of looking both ways is at the very heart of activating our mission through dispelling ignorance, diminishing apathy and promoting unity and galvanizing action through the experiences of those who came before us.

The weight of holding systems accountable, reforming institutions, and educating is one that can only be shouldered by working together as a community.

We continue to bear witness to generation after generation of injustice, but time after time, we also have seen powerful movements rise in response. We have an important duty in this moment: To continue this long upstanding tradition, this labor on behalf of truth and justice.

The museum thanks all of its supporters locally and globally for entrusting us with the responsibility to challenge, illuminate, inspire and, ultimately, stand in solidarity with all those who endeavor to protect and preserve human life and rights by speaking out against injustice.

Dr. Elijah Heyward III is chief operating officer for the International African American Museum in Charleston.

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