Democrat Barack Obama looked Monday to deepen support among the African-American community in a speech to the annual convention of a leading civil rights group that raked corporate greed "that puts their bottom line ahead of what's right for America."
The Illinois senator — who would be the first black elected as president — also returned to his message that blacks must "do more in our own lives, our own families, and our own communities," a theme that prompted civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson to say last week he wanted to castrate Obama for talking down to the black community. While Jackson apologized when the remarks were made public, the incident laid bare generational tensions in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Obama also pounded home his opposition to the Iraq war, writing in The New York Times that he would not relent from withdrawing American forces by 2009 and announced a plan — if elected — to deploy an additional 7,000 troops to Afghanistan.
In remarks prepared for delivery in Cincinnati to the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Obama said the 2008 presidential election was "about the responsibilities that corporate America has — responsibilities that start with ending a culture on Wall Street that says what's good for me is good enough."
"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," he said, citing the work and sacrifices of U.S. civil rights giants like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins.
But he called on black Americans to look inward as well.
“If we’re serious about reclaiming that dream, we have to do more in our own lives, our own families and our own communities,” the Democratic presidential candidate said. “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.”
He added: “I know some say I’ve been too tough on folks about this responsibility stuff. But I’m not going to stop talking about it. Because I believe that in the end, it doesn’t matter how much money we invest in our communities, or how many 10-point plans we propose, or how many government programs we launch — none of it will make any difference if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives.”
Obama speaks often on this issue. A similar speech on Father’s Day prompted an awkward rebuke from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic presidential contender in 1984 and 1988, a protege of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a fellow Chicago political activist.
Jackson apologized last week after being caught saying on an open microphone that he wanted to castrate Obama for speaking down to blacks.
The Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is officially nonpartisan. Republican presidential candidate John McCain is scheduled to address the convention on Wednesday.
Speech applies to all races
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who was an aide to Jackson's presidential bids, said blacks understand that Obama is trying to be elected president in a majority-white nation. But he said there has been frustration for those who want Obama to lay out a specific agenda for the black community beyond speeches from the pulpit about responsibility.
"We don't expect him to be a minister," Walters said in a telephone interview. "He's running to be president. ... What is the nature of your public policy?"
Gwendolyn Baker, here from Grand Prairie, Texas, said she thought Obama's talk about parental responsibility applies to all races.
"It's not just black families," she said. "He's talking about an issue that affects everybody — black families, Hispanic families, white families."
Ronnie Robinson, here for the convention from North Carolina, said he hears some blacks say Obama, son of a white mother and black father, "isn't black enough." Robinson, though, thinks Obama's multiracial background helps him in having a broad appeal.
"He's unique," Robinson said. "He understands both sides."
Some people also understand the politics involved.
"Any candidate has to speak to all the people; they can't afford to speak exclusively to one group," said Dennis Courtland Hayes, the NAACP's interim president and CEO. "I would encourage us all to understand that we are not all going to get what we want. But working together, we can come up with resolutions to problems to get us to where we want to be."
McCain plans to talk about education, including expanded merit-pay programs for teachers who improve their students' academic performance.
Walters, the political scientist, said McCain's visit to the convention is a way to say he wants to represent all groups.
"It strikes a good tone," Walters said. "If (McCain) is elected president, he can say, 'I was there, I have an open door.'"
Obama, who drew overwhelming black voter support during Democratic primaries, will find plenty of fans here.
"I think he's speaking to the whole United States," said Bernie Hewett, of Brunswick County, N.C. "He's especially reaching the young voters, black and white, getting them involved."
Alicia Reece, a former Cincinnati city councilwoman, said she hears a lot of enthusiasm about Obama among young blacks, who see his political emergence reflecting positively on a group familiar with negative portrayals.
"A lot of my friends feel there are a lot of Barack Obamas in our community that have never had the opportunity to be showcased like this," she said. "They're very excited about that."
And civil rights veteran Julian Bond, the NACCP board chairman, drew loud applause in a speech Sunday night when he described Obama's candidacy as a milestone.
"The country seems proud, and I know all of us here are, that a candidate campaigning in cities where he could not have stayed in a hotel 40 years ago has won his party's nomination for the nation's highest office," Bond said.