“A Change is Gonna Come” was released on December 22, 1964 by Sam Cooke. Soulful as well as insightful, Cooke’s lyrics have resonated with the black community for over half a century. On September 24th, 2016 the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) held its dedication ceremony with notable guests such as Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) who fought Congress unapologetically for 15 years for the museum to come into fruition. Both President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, alongside former President George (who was instrumental in signing the museum bill back in 2003) and Laura Bush joined together to commemorate this once in a lifetime moment. From the thousands watching on the National Mall to those sitting at home or streaming live on the NMAAHC’s app, no one could deny the excitement, admiration, and sense of solidarity.
Leading up to the dedication, a select few were able to preview the museum before it opened to the public. However, for me, I wanted to wait and see it with the one person who means the world to me…my mom. Securing the coveted time passes almost a month in advance was the least I could do for her. On September 25th we arrived early to be greeted by gridlocked traffic, street closures, tight security and extremely long lines. Yet we were not deterred. We entered hand in hand, knowing we were in for an awakening in mind, body, and spirit.
Our first (and my only stop for that day) was the Oprah Winfrey Theater. There, Ava DuVernay’s voice on August 28th played recalling the importance of that particular day throughout African American history. Events ranging from Emmett Till’s death to the March on Washington flashed across the screen. A reminder for some, an introduction to others. Leaving my mother there for a photo assignment had to be one of the hardest things for me; yet the stories she told when we met later that night left me in awe of all that I had missed.
Luckily, someone was nice enough to give me two additional tickets for the very next day. Call me selfish, but I longed to see with my own eyes all that I heard. Once again we encountered long lines and tightened security, on the other hand the gridlocked traffic and street closures had thankfully dissipated. Once again we walked hand in hand through those heavy glass doors, however this time we started together on the lowest level which represented the transatlantic slave trade. It took us four hours to navigate. When we arrived to the second level…we stopped. It was a difficult decision. Nonetheless we made it. Not only to savor and digest all we had observed, but to take time and reflect.
Upon our departure, a 95 year old woman awaited with her family to board an elevator up to the entrance level. While waiting a bystander who happened to be the singer Betty Entzminger began to serenade her with “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Holding hands the two exchanged this poignant moment that we along with others were allowed to witness. Snapping a photograph, I begin to tear up for many reasons. I thought of my grandmother who is also 95 and hoped that she too will get to see this milestone with her own eyes. For my mother who grew up in Alabama during some of the most turbulent times in America’s history. But also for all the beautiful faces, both young and old. Never had I felt so safe in a public space. Never had I felt the overwhelming positive energy of so many people who looked in some capacity like me. I cannot wait to go back, and will try to at least once a month. Although Cooke’s lyrics still strike a powerful chord, Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director of the NMAAHC, captured my sentiments exactly…”This building will sing for all of us.”
Photos by Jai Williams
Jai Williams’ book, The Plantations of Virginia, will be published by Globe Pequot Press February, 2017.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW