Obama talks personal responsibility to NAACP

The nation's first black president addresses one of the organizations that made it possible

By Alex Koppelman - Caitlin Shamberg
July 17, 2009 4:45PM (UTC)
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If, somewhere, there's a rating system for coincidences -- a scale ranging from the ordinary to the almost miraculous -- then the one that played out when President Obama spoke to the NAACP on on Thursday night has to rank pretty high. That the first black man to be elected president of the United States could speak to the NAACP 's annual convention was miracle enough, of course. But this convention also just happened to mark the great civil rights organization's centennial.

Obama, obviously, went out of his way to recognize the milestone, and to acknowledge the role the NAACP had played in his election.


"What we celebrate tonight is not simply the journey the NAACP has traveled, but the journey that we, as Americans, have traveled over the past one hundred years," the president said at the beginning of his address, according to his prepared remarks.

Speaking of civil rights leaders and workers from the NAACP, Obama continued, "Because 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, governors, and Members of Congress serve in places where they might once have been unable to vote. And because ordinary people made the civil rights movement their own, I made a trip to Springfield a couple years ago -- where Lincoln once lived, and race riots once raged -- and began the journey that has led me here tonight as the 44th President of the United States of America."

But Obama's speech wasn't all about accomplishments -- it was largely about the work that remains to be done for bringing about full equality in the U.S. The president kept to a familiar message on this front; his speeches to the black community have always focused on personal responsibility, and Thursday night was no different.


"All these innovative programs and expanded opportunities will not, in and of themselves, make a difference if each of us, as parents and as community leaders, fail to do our part by encouraging excellence in our children," Obama said. "Government programs alone won’t get our children to the Promised Land. We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes -- because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves.

"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 someone in a wealthy suburb does not. 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 -- and don’t you forget that."

This kind of speech from Obama has always played better in the national media than it has with leaders in the black community -- witness, for example, Jesse Jackson caught on a hot mic last summer saying he wanted to "cut [Obama's] nuts off" and that Obama "talked down" to black people. But the reaction in the room this time around was positive, and afterwards, NAACP leaders who spoke to reporters also had good things to say, though they did spin the speech a little.


"He seemed to me to be saying that you don't get anywhere unless you put some effort into it," Julian Bond, the chair of the group's board of directors, said. (Video below.) "You can't expect it to happen just because you want it to happen, you have to do something about it. The NAACP is one of the groups that does something about it, did something about it and is gonna do something about it."

Below, Salon video of Bond and NAACP President Benjamin Jealous responding to Obama, and video of the president's speech.



Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Caitlin Shamberg

Caitlin Shamberg is a former multimedia editor at Salon.

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