President Barack Obama on Thursday traced his historic rise to power to the vigor and valor of black civil-rights leaders, telling the NAACP that the sacrifice of others "began the journey that has led me here." The nation's first black president bluntly warned, though, that racial barriers persist.
"Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America," the president said in honoring the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 100th convention.
Painting himself as the beneficiary of the NAACP's work, Obama cited historical figures from W.E.B. DuBois to Thurgood Marshall to explain how the path to the presidency was cleared by visionaries.
Obama's remarks, steeped in his personal biography as the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, challenged the audience — those in the room and those beyond — to take greater responsibility for their own future. He told parents to take a more active role and residents to pay better attention to their schools.
Rousing up a friendly crowd, Obama made his first speech so directly linked with race since he took office; the White House says he worked on it for about two weeks. Implicit in his appearance: He is seeking the backing of the powerful NAACP and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda.
The president said that in the current down economy, blacks are suffering high unemployment and are afflicted with more diseases but are less likely to own health insurance. He said that the African-American child is about five times as likely as a white child to be sent to jail.
Power of education
Obama touted education as essential to improving the lives of all children. He said the state of schools is an American problem, not an African-American one.
"You know what I'm talking about. There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools," Obama said. "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."
"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,'" Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign.
"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," he said. "No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands and don't you forget that."
Find new role models
Obama expanded his message of equal rights beyond the black communities. He said many Americans still face discrimination.
Racism, he said, is felt "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 also pressed for NAACP members to encourage their young people to find new role models beyond sports or music.
"I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers," Obama said. "I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."
To bolster his argument that it's within their reach, he cited his own biography, growing up with a single mother.
"I don't come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a kid. My life could easily have taken a turn for the worse. But that mother of mine gave me love; she pushed me, and cared about my education; she took no lip and taught me right from wrong," Obama said. "Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities. I had the chance to make the most of my opportunities. I had the chance to make the most of life."
For all the shared interests, White House aides cautioned that the group's leadership had not guaranteed its support of all of Obama's priorities.
"We will be the people at the end of the day who help make him do what he knows he should do," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year. "We will help create the room for (Obama) to fulfill, I think, his own aspirations for his presidency."
Every president since 1909 has visited the NAACP at least once, although some more frequently than others. President George W. Bush skipped the first five meetings before eventually addressing the group in 2006. For Obama, skipping his first invitation and the centennial festivities was not an option.