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Can the new African-American museum bring us reconciliation?

Conservative Review

We are living in a time of terrible conflict for this country. Long-held racial tensions, justly or unjustly, have boiled over into violence. Misunderstandings and long-perceived abuses have erupted into rage.

Our communities are not united. Our countrymen are hurting. And, at times, it seems reconciliation is unachievable.

But there are those who hold out hope for a future where Americans — all Americans — can come together in unity, in equality under the law, and in peace and justice. They hope that process begins with the opening of a new museum.

On Saturday, Sept. 24, the National Museum of African American History & Culture will have its grand opening in Washington, D.C., after decades of debate in Congress.

Authorized by President George W. Bush in 2003, Bush said at the time the museum “will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation.”

“A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.”

You may wonder how a museum is supposed to help heal the division in this country — a division whose worst face was expressed this week in Charlotte by rioting and violence. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback may have an answer for you.

In a recent op-ed for the local Leader & Times — of the aptly, allegorically named Liberal, Kan. — Brownback discussed his efforts with Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.) in making what was once a “dream” a reality.

The Republican governor was instrumental in the latest Smithsonian museum’s development and authorization. Brownback spoke to Conservative Review this week about his efforts, and the significance of the African American museum for all Americans in an especially precarious and troubling time:

You write in your op-ed, “Few dreams are realized in Washington D.C.” Can you walk through the process of how we’ve arrived here at opening weekend for the National Museum of African American History & Culture?

Well, it is fantastic, and it is a lesson in persistence. I started this project 14 years ago and others started on it a hundred years ago, and it is just now coming around. It started for me as an effort at reconciliation between the races, an effort to bring the races together. I literally was praying one day at church and the thought of this museum hit me. So we started researching it and looking at it and got engaged with it. And with Congressman Lewis — who had a long history with it — worked it hard, got both a bill authorization and appropriation through with President Bush.

In your op-ed you talk a lot about reconciliation. With the museum opening this week, how do you think that will contribute to that conversation?

I said at the time, and this is a dozen years ago, that this is a museum of reconciliation. That’s what my hope and dream for it was. And if people would go through and would see the things that have happened to the African American community in this country, and that there’d be tears — tears of cleansing. I couldn’t have imagined that it would come on line at a moment like where we are now where our race relations are as bad as they’ve been in decades … maybe even going on back to the late ‘60s.

It seems to me to be coming on line at really a powerful and important moment for the country and the discussion of racial reconciliation.

Now, some conservatives might object to a multi-million dollar federally funded project. Do you think you can share why you feel that conservatives could support — or, why conservatives should support — the museum?

A lot of conservatives are people of faith. The Christian faith is a ministry of reconciliation. It’s one of the key attributes of it, that just fits right in our wheelhouse. Now, reconciliation is much easier to talk about than it is to do. And it’s often hard to describe. But it does involve really owning what is happening, or has happened, and attempts through open dialogue to move forward to reconcile people.

That’s what God did through Christ — in reconciling man to himself. That’s a ministry that we’re to be a part of and we need; we need racial reconciliation in this country and it’s just so obvious now that we don’t have it.

What do you think that conversation should look like?

I think it has to be fully open. I think it has to go back through everything — that it has to be open to everything and open to all discussions. I think it has to be peaceful. That discussion has to be focused on truth, justice, and it has to be open to everything.

It’s really similar to my confessing my own sins and dealing with them. I’ve got to own what I’ve done and I have to confess it. I have to seek forgiveness for it. I think that’s a corporate project as well as an individual project.

A museum tells history. It tells people what happened, what the facts were, what the truth is. Do you think the museum will be able to contribute to this conversation and have a significant role in that?

I do, I really do. I thought the Holocaust museum in D.C. was a major contribution to truth and the horrors of what took place. I think this museum is going to substantially contribute to that truthful discussion that’s hard to have. It’s well past the moment. Slavery was considered America’s original sin and it’s time, it’s way past time to have a wholesome discussion about the whole breadth, and I don’t think we’re going to move forward until we do.

Given what’s happening in Charlotte this week, our fellow Americans are hurting. They’re looking to our elected officials for answers. As a conservative leader, how do you think conservatives should move forward — beyond this museum — with this conversation? 

I have thought about this a lot. And I really think we need something of a national commission on truth and reconciliation to have a big national dialogue about race relations in the country — what they’ve been, what they haven’t been, what they need to be.

We need to provide a forum where there can be an open and peaceful discussion. Who in this country right now doesn’t expect more riots to break out somewhere in America throughout the next year? The likelihood of this happening seems to be quite high. We need to provide that forum to have a legitimate open discussion. I think we need to do that.

I was in Rwanda a dozen years after the genocide. And I was amazed at how functioning the country was a dozen years after 800,000 people have been killed by their fellow countrymen. They’ve gone through this process of truth and reconciliation … I don’t think they called it that, they called it something else … where they confronted what each other had done.

Now ours goes back, it has a long history to it, and there were good moments and bad moments. But I think that sort of process where you give it visibility, and scale, and truth and you travel it around the country is really needed.

One of the things you close your op-ed with, you said “we must embrace the principles of both unity and equality, working to make this dream a reality.” With all of these incidents that are happening, the African American community in particular feels like the laws of our nation are not being applied equally to them. They don't believe conservatives when we say we want to listen to them. How can our conservative elected officials take leadership in ensuring that the law is applied equally to to all Americans?

That’s a good question. [pause] I think there are tools that can be useful, like body cameras [for police], so there’s a factual set of evidence. I think you can use those sort of tools. But, I think you’re going to need something like this commission to go in and look at data, and it’s going to have to have credible people from the African-American community on it as well. And I’m still not even sure if at that point and time the issue would resolve itself.

The other side of it, too, is I get concerned that we’re going to continue to see very high crime rates in our inner-cities if our police officers look at this and say, “Well, I’m not capable of doing my job in this situation now.” People are concerned about that taking place. That one’s going to really need to be a bipartisan group that has credible people look into stuff and see what else could be recommended to take place and be used to answer that point, because I think that’s going to take a lot.

When you look at the culture of Washington, D.C. today, and the divisions we’re having, how difficult do you think it will be getting this conversation started?

Frankly, I don’t think that getting the conversation started will be all that hard. I’ve already reached out to [Rep.] John Lewis about a truth and reconciliation commission. I think it’s just going to take … well, let me put it this way:

When I was in the Senate, if I wanted to get something through I would go to the furthest left-wing guy I could find that was interested in the same topic and would approach him about it. I did the first human-trafficking bill with Paul Wellstone. We did a bill, we got it through the Senate, but not any further with Joe Biden on a three-state, one-country solution in Iraq.

If you’re going to get something done, you needed to go and find somebody on the left side. And you needed somebody that had credibility on the Left and credibility on the Right to do it. And I think that’s what this is going to take. That similar sort of “there’s no question this person is a true dye-in-the-wool liberal” and “this person is a true dye-in-the-wool conservative.” But we are both seeing the same things — that this country is just getting ripped apart here.

Going back to the museum, are you excited for the opening ceremony?

I am. I really am excited about it. I’m just amazed that it’s coming out at a moment of such heightened racial tensions. And I’m hopeful it can be a helpful piece in the dialogue and not harmful. I know it will be, long term, a helpful piece. I’m thrilled that it’s taking place and I think it really will contribute to the moment in a positive way.

Reconciliation. Reconciliation is hard. It involves listening to those you disagree with — with those you may not understand.

The was little understanding in the violent riots observed in Charlotte this week. There’s no question that the people who participated in the violence, in the looting … those people are not seeking reconciliation. They want retribution. And they will wrongly harm others to get it.

But there are those who protested peacefully. Voices drowned in the violence: our neighbors, members of our communities, our fellow Americans who are hurting and whose voices need to be heard.

Conservatives have a role to play in ensuring that these voices are heard, that their concerns are addressed. Gov. Sam Brownback is an exemplary conservative leader whose efforts have created a foundation from which to begin the process of reconciliation our country so desperately needs.

How will the next generation of conservative leaders build upon that foundation? And when will we start, if not now?

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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