What Obama really said to the NAACP

Headlines about how he again preached responsibility and "tough love" to the black community are distorting a powerful speech.

Published July 14, 2008 11:06PM (EDT)

Here's the headline on the AP story we ran today, about Barack Obama's fantastic speech to the NAACP: "Obama tells NAACP blacks must take responsibility."

Wow. Obama did say that, and he's said it before. But he gave a long, moving, smart speech that said many other things first, and I thought that was an odd and lazy headline for the story. We automated AP wires, by the way, so we could bring you the news faster, and that's the headline they gave us. But the AP wasn't alone: ABC News headlined its story "Obama to talk tough-love at NAACP, despite Jackson frustrations."

Obama's remarks about "black responsibility" came at the end of the speech. And sure, they were hard-hitting. But for most of his talk, he hit issues of economic and social justice much harder, and outlined the way American society has failed African-Americans.

"What Dr. King and Roy Wilkins understood is that it matters little if you have the right to sit at the front of the bus if you can't afford the bus fare; it matters little if you have the right to sit at the lunch counter if you can't afford the lunch. What they understood is that so long as Americans are denied the decent wages, and good benefits, and fair treatment they deserve, the dream for which so many gave so much will remain out of reach; that to live up to our founding promise of equality for all, we have to make sure that opportunity is open to all Americans.

"That is what I've been fighting to do throughout my over 20 years in public service. That's why I've fought in the Senate to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and give those tax breaks to companies that create good jobs here in America. That's why I brought Democrats and Republicans together in Illinois to put $100 million in tax cuts into the pockets of hardworking families, to expand health care to 150,000 children and parents, and to end the outrage of black women making just 62 cents for every dollar that many of their male coworkers make….

"So I've been working my entire adult life to help build an America where social justice is being served and economic justice is being served; an America where we all have an equal chance to make it if we try. That's the America I believe in. That's the America you’ve been fighting for over the past 99 years. And that’s the America we have to keep marching towards today."

Then Obama moved onto a list of responsibilities "corporate America has" and that "Washington has" -- again, around economic justice, a fair tax code, housing, healthcare, education reform, job training -- the full list of programs liberals and civil rights advocates have always fought for.

Only in the last quarter of the speech did he spend a few paragraphs talking about the responsibilities of individuals and families to improve conditions for African-Americans and for all low-income Americans. And I heard him talking to all of us, not just black people:

"Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown versus Board of Education so that some of us could stop doing our jobs as parents. And I know that nine little children did not walk through a schoolhouse door in Little Rock so that we could stand by and let our children drop out of school and turn to gangs for the support they are not getting elsewhere. That’s not the freedom they fought so hard to achieve. That's not the America they gave so much to build. That’s not the dream they had for our children.

"That’s why if we’re serious about reclaiming that dream, we have to do more in our own lives, our own families, and our own communities. That starts with providing the guidance our children need, turning off the TV, and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework, and setting a good example. It starts with teaching our daughters to never allow images on television to tell them what they are worth; and teaching our sons to treat women with respect, and to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them men is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one. It starts by being good neighbors and good citizens who are willing to volunteer in our communities -- and to help our synagogues and churches and community centers feed the hungry and care for the elderly. We all have to do our part to lift up this country.

"That's where change begins. And that, after all, is the true genius of America -- not that America is, but that America will be; not that we are perfect, but that we can make ourselves more perfect; that brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand, people who love this country can change it. And that's our most enduring responsibility -- the responsibility to future generations. We have to change this country for them. We have to leave them a planet that's cleaner, a nation that's safer, and a world that's more equal and more just."

So many in the media seem invested in perpetuating the story of tension between Obama and Jesse Jackson and other older black leaders, which is much more fun to write about than what to do about urban education. (In fairness to reporters, it may be that's the angle some Obama folks are peddling on the speech.) But I think such coverage distorts a brave and moving address, and Obama and the nation deserve better.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections