President Barack Obama wowed the audience at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. Photo: Courtesy/NAACP
NEW YORK (NNPA) â€" Cheers, applause, laughter, repeated standing ovations â€" and even church-like shouts of â€œYes!â€" and â€œAmen!â€" at the NAACP Centennial meeting last week showed the world that amidst the daily responsibilities of the Oval Office, President Barack Obama has not lost his rock star appeal in the Black community.
â€œWhat an extraordinary night, capping off an extraordinary week, capping off an extraordinary 100 years at the NAACP,â€" he shouted his first words to the applauding crowd in New York City, the founding place of the civil rights organization.
He was speaking at the annual Dinner to award the Spingarn Medal, the highest justice award bestowed upon a civil rights warrior. This year it went to NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.
â€œSo Chairman Bond, Brother Justice, I am so grateful to all of you for being here. It's just good to be among friends,â€" the President gave his greetings.
He continued, â€œIt's a journey that takes us back to a time before most of us were born, long before the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education; back to an America just a generation past slavery. It was a time when Jim Crow was a way of life; when lynchings were all too common; when race riots were shaking cities across a segregated land.''
The rapid fire speech, ticking off many of the issues that NAACP members and Black America deal with daily, appeared to pour from the president, who for the past seven months has been largely mired in economic and international affairs.
He meshed his mantra of â€œchangeâ€" with the historic civil rights progress of the NAACP.
â€œThey also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people. It would come from people protesting lynchings, rallying against violence, all those women who decided to walk instead of taking the bus, even though they were tired after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children. â€¦ It would come from men and women of every age and faith, and every race and region -- taking Greyhounds on Freedom Rides; sitting down at Greensboro lunch counters; registering voters in rural Mississippi, knowing they would be harassed, knowing they would be beaten, knowing that some of them might never return.â€"
And he illustrated how that work of years ago has affected issues today.
â€œBecause of what they did, we are a more perfect union. Because Jim Crow laws were overturned, Black CEOs today run Fortune 500 companies. Because civil rights laws were passed, Black mayors, Black governors, and members of Congress served in places where they might once have been able [sic] not just to vote but even take a sip of water. And because ordinary people did such extraordinary things, because they made the civil rights movement their own, even though there may not be a plaque or their names might not be in the history books because of their efforts I made a little trip to Springfield, Illinois, a couple years ago where Lincoln once lived, and race riots once raged - and began the journey that has led me to be here tonight as the 44th President of the United States of America,â€" he said to thunderous applause. â€œBecause of them I stand here tonight on the shoulders of giants. And I'm here to say thank you to those pioneers and thank you to the NAACP.â€"
These words of thanks were familiar. In March, President Obama and First Lady Michelle gave a similar thanks to the publishers of the National Newspaper Publishers Association at a White House reception honoring his historic win as well as the role of the Black Press in his success.
In his speech to the NAACP, the President â€" a civil rights lawyer who, as a U. S. Senator, consistently got the grade of â€œAâ€" on the NAACP civil rights report card, also made it clear that the struggle is not nearly over. Facing racially disparate unemployment rates, poverty rates, health care rates crime rates, incarceration and poor quality education rates in the Black community, Obama encouraged the civil rights organization to continue its work.
â€œEven as we celebrate the remarkable achievements of the past 100 years; even as we inherit extraordinary progress that cannot be denied; even as we marvel at the courage and determination of so many plain folk - we know that too many barriers still remain,â€" he said. â€œWe know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African-Americans are out of work more than just about anybody else ... We know that even as spiraling health care costs crush families of all races, African-Americans are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anybody else. We know that even as we imprison more people of all races than any nation in the world, an African-American child is roughly five times as likely as a White child to see the inside of a prison. We know that even as the scourge of HIV/AIDS devastates nations abroad, particularly in Africa, it is devastating the African-American community here at home with disproportionate force. We know these things.â€"
Comparing todayâ€™s battles to those of the past, he continued, â€œWhat's required to overcome today's barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency. The same sense of sacrifice. The same sense of community. The same willingness to do our part for ourselves and one another that has always defined America at its best and the African American experience at its best.â€"
â€œMake no mistake,â€" he lectured the applauding audience. â€œThe pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rightsâ€¦Prejudice has no place in the United States of America. That's what the NAACP stands for. That's what the NAACP will continue to fight for as long as it takes.â€"
With all the focus on civil rights, it was actually the issue of racial inequities in education that got the biggest ride in the Presidentâ€™s speech before the oldest civil rights organization.
â€œThere's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason why the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential,â€" he said. â€œAnd yet, more than half a century after Brown v. Board, the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across the country. African-American students are lagging behind white classmates in reading and math - an achievement gap that is growing in states that once led the way in the civil rights movement. Over half of all African American students are dropping out of school in some places. There are overcrowded classrooms, and crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children - not just black children, brown and white children as well.â€"
He resolved that the responsibility to remedy this problem is not just on Blacks.
â€œThe state of our schools is not an African-American problem; it is an American problem. Because if Black and brown children cannot compete, then America cannot compete. And let me say this, if Al Sharpton, Mike Bloomberg, and Newt Gingrich can agree that we need to solve the education problem, then that's something all of America can agree we can solve. Those guys came into my office. Just sitting in the Oval Office -- I kept on doing a double-take,â€" he said, slightly crouching and weaving his head as if to see closer. â€œSo that's a sign of progress and it is a sign of the urgency of the education problem. All of us can agree that we need to offer every child in this country - every child.â€"
When one shout of â€œAmen!â€" rose from the audience above all others, the president concluded like a preacher, â€œGot an ''Amen corner'' back there â€¦ every child â€¦ every child in this country [deserves] the best education the world has to offer from cradle through a career.â€"