NEW YORK – Saying that civil rights leaders from decades past paved the way for his election as the nation’s first black commander in chief, President Barack Obama paid homage to the NAACP and advised members that their work remains unfinished.
Obama traced his historic rise to power to the vigor and valor of black civil rights leaders, telling the nation’s oldest civil rights organization Thursday night that their sacrifice “began the journey that has led me here.” He also prodded them to look beyond simply African-American rights as the group celebrated its 100th convention.
“Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” the president told the friendly audience that erupted in standing applause and the occasional “Amen” during his remarks.
Rousing his audience, Obama offered his most direct speech on race since winning the White House, a mix of personal reflection and policy promotion. He had worked on the address for about two weeks and revised it until shortly before he spoke, his aides said, underscoring the importance of his message and his audience.
Implicit in his appearance was that he is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda. He also is careful not to forget a groundswell of black voters who reshaped the electoral map, although they didn’t singularly deliver him to the White House.
Painting himself as the beneficiary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People‘s work, Obama cited historical figures from W.E.B. DuBois to Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. to Emmet Till to explain how the path to the presidency was cleared by visionaries.
Despite the racial progress exemplified by his own election, Obama said African-Americans must overcome a disproportionate share of struggles, including being more likely to suffer from many diseases and having a higher proportion of children end up in jail.
“They’re very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They’re very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers,” Obama said. “But what’s required to overcome today’s barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency.”
Obama expanded his message of equal rights beyond the black communities. He said many Americans still face discrimination and suggested the NAACP — looking to declare a mission for its second century — might embrace a broader mandate in coming years.
Obama’s remarks, steeped in his personal biography as the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, challenged the audience — those in the room and those beyond — to take greater responsibility for their own future.
He urged parents to take a more active role, residents to pay better attention to their schools and students to aspire beyond basketball stars and rappers.
“I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers,” Obama said. “I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States.”
With that line, Obama drove the hotel ballroom audience to its feet.
Throughout his comments, Obama sought a balance, contending that the government must foster equality but individuals must take charge of their own lives. It was reminiscent of earlier Obama speeches, calling on fathers to help their children and adopting a tone that at times seemed drawn from the pulpit.
“We have to say to our children, `Yes, if you’re African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face,” Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign.
“But that’s not a reason to get bad grades, that’s not a reason to cut class, that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands.”
Today, Obama said, it is not prejudice or discrimination that presents the greatest obstacles for blacks, but rather structural inequities_ in areas such as education and health care. Still, he said discrimination persists — and not just for blacks — and chided those who may contend otherwise.
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.
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