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Greensboro, Charlottesville, and the nation we build together

"I walked away with an attitude that, if our country is screwed up, don't give up. Unscrew it, but don't give up."                   

—Joe McNeill, one of the "Greensboro Four," the original protestors in the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in on February 1, 1960 

The west side of the second floor of the National Museum of American History is called "The Nation We Build Together." It's the story of how our country was built by the actions and decisions of the people in the past—and how our actions and decisions are creating the United States of tomorrow. The exhibitions document how we've negotiated competing visions of the United States throughout our history. Living up to our national motto—"E Pluribus Unum," or "Out Of Many One"—has never been easy.

Wooden eagle carved and painted in wood.

Though we began planning for these new exhibitions years ago, the stories and artifacts within them speak directly to the challenges and anxieties of the present. They have taken on more resonance in the past few weeks for me, as our country has dealt with the aftermath of the hatred and violence perpetrated at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Looking across our new exhibitions, you can see the historical roots of our current turmoil. We the people have both fought for justice and denied it to one another from the very beginning of our country.

History can help us understand how we've gotten where we are, which in turn can help us figure out what we can or should do next. When I feel powerless to control the world around me, I can see the impact that individual actions have had—how decisions made by everyday people can reverberate through time. Throughout our new floor, you can see the long history of Americans standing up for what they believe in, bringing the country closer to our ideals.

Statue of George Washington, seated in toga, offering a sword to the viewer.

You are welcomed to "The Nation We Build Together" by Horatio Greenough's iconic statue of George Washington. Greenough's sculpture is an idealistic image of our nation's first president and an aspirational vision of the country he helped to found. The statue memorializes Washington's decision at the end of the Revolution to relinquish power to the people, an action that set the course for our fledgling democracy. Styled as the Greek god Zeus in this 12-ton marble sculpture, Washington holds out the hilt of his sword—to you. The nation and its democracy are your responsibility.

Photo of lunch counter on display in museum. Four chairs. Simple counter from a diner or deli. Behind counter, black and white photo of young men protesting.

Just around the corner, you'll find another national treasure that symbolizes the power of the people. But instead of a larger-than-life mythological figure, this one is a humble artifact of the bravery of everyday citizens. The Greensboro lunch counter is an actual section of a segregated lunch counter from the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. On February 1, 1960, four young African American college students—Ezell A. Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond—sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and asked to be served. When they were denied, they remained in their seats. The Greensboro Four's powerful protest grew into a youth movement that spread across the country. Protests such as theirs led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations.

I am profoundly moved and inspired by the story of the four college students who led the Greensboro sit-in. Like the victims of the violence in Charlottesville, the Greensboro Four faced unimaginable hatred. The white supremacist force they confronted was not an external enemy from a foreign land; it was composed of neighbors and countrymen, and part of our nation's long history of racial terror. In Greensboro, as in Charlottesville, the people taking a stand against white supremacy were everyday Americans who saw an injustice they couldn't stomach, and they put their lives on the line to change it. While the country argues over who we should immortalize in marble, it's important to remember that history isn't just made by politicians and military figures, but by all of us.

Greenough's statue of George Washington represents the pristine ideal of America, a place where power belongs to the people and is shared among them. The Greensboro lunch counter, on the other hand, symbolizes the tremendous sacrifice and struggle it has taken to try and reach that ideal. Together they tell a story of a country that requires action of its citizens.

The events in Charlottesville remind us that history is not a series of inevitable events that played out in a dusty past. It's happening all around us every day. Our actions and decisions matter, whether we are famous or anonymous, in an official position of power or not. And understanding our complicated history is vital to making sense of where and how to act. Together, we are creating the United States that future generations will live in. What part will you play?

Megan Smith is an exhibition developer and educator, and the project director of Unity Square, an interactive space on the museum's second floor. Learn more about The Nation We Build Together, or read our director's statement on Charlottesville.