“Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” the president said in honoring the nation’s largest civil rights organization on the occasion of its 100th convention.
Speaking to an audience of several thousand at the Hilton New York, Mr. Obama credited the bravery and determination of civil rights leaders with paving the way for a black person to win the White House. “Because of them I stand here tonight, on the shoulders of giants,” Obama said. “And I’m here to say thank you to those pioneers and thank you to the NAACP.”
President Obama used the speech not only to pay tribute to his forerunners but to highlight modern challenges faced by the black community. He spoke of societal ills that often disproportionately afflict black Americans, including being more likely to suffer from many diseases and having a higher proportion of children end up in jail.
“These are some of the barriers of our time,” Me. Obama said. “They’re very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They’re very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers,” he continued. “But what’s required to overcome today’s barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency.”
In response to such challenges, President Obama urged parents to take a more active role in their children’s lives. “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.”
Mr. Obama also cited discrimination that continues to plague other communities and urged his audience to extend the fight for equal rights to all – to women, Latinos, Muslims, and gays and lesbians.
The speech was suffused with personal history; in crediting his single, white mother with keeping him focused on education, President Obama remarked, “When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners, I say, there but for the grace of God go I.”
But it was also a policy speech, with Mr. Obama pitching tenets of his ambitious domestic policy agenda, including reform in finance, health care and energy.
The NAACP’s president, Benjamin T. Jealous, who at 36 is the youngest person to lead the organization, said afterward that the address “was the most forthright speech on the racial disparities still plaguing our nation” that Mr. Obama has given since the inauguration.