At NAACP Convention, Obama Speaks of Progress and Continued Struggle
Friday, July 17, 2009
NEW YORK, July 16 -- In his first speech before the nation's oldest civil rights organization since taking office, President Obama paid tribute Thursday to the NAACP as it celebrated its centennial, delivering what the group's chief executive called his most "forthright speech on racial disparities."
In his return to the association that helped pave the way for him to become the first African American president, Obama spoke directly to the concerns that have plagued the NAACP as it grapples with relevancy in an age that has been described as post-racial.
"We know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African Americans are out of work more than just about anyone else," the president said. "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 anyone else."
"The barriers of our time," he added, are "very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. . . . But what is required to overcome today's barriers is the same as was needed then."
Obama used his 34-minute speech to rally a loyal constituency that is working to hold him accountable even as it continues to celebrate his presidency.
Members of the NAACP crammed into a banquet hall and several overflow rooms to hear the president, and at times they seemed to simply relish his words.
Obama has become both a crowning symbol of the achievements of the civil rights movement and a hurdle to it. When the organization was founded in 1909, black Americans were routinely the victims of attacks by lynch mobs and were legally treated as second-class citizens. As it turns 100, a black man leads the country and social commentators are debating whether an organization founded to win civil rights for African Americans is still necessary.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, who at 36 is the youngest person ever to lead the organization, said that Obama made clear that "the fight isn't over yet."
Obama thanked the association -- home over the years to towering African American figures such as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson and Ida B. Wells -- for working to "promote equality and eradicate prejudice among citizens of the United States" and indicated that he still thinks it is needed.
"Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," said Obama, who was greeted with cheers and extended applause. "By African American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."
Obama has navigated the complicated terrain of race in a nuanced way, seldom dealing with it directly in terms of policy. During last year's campaign, he did not confront the subject fully until racially incendiary comments by his former pastor threatened to derail his candidacy. Then Obama delivered what many called a history-making address on race but did not touch on race-based government policies.
National Urban League President Marc Morial, who attended the convention earlier in the week, said Thursday that people have been looking for Obama "for a signal that he cares about people like me," adding: "They're looking for it in his words and in his deeds."