NEW YORK, July 17, 2009 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama paid passionate tribute to black civil rights trailblazers on the centennial of the NAACP, but said a "new mindset" was necessary to achieve a post-racial America.
The first black president in US history received a thunderous welcome at a dinner Thursday marking the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded after the abolition of slavery but when segregation "was a way of life (and) when lynchings were all too common."
|US President Barack Obama (C) greets supporters after a rally for the reelection of New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, July 16, 2009 (AFP photo)|
The president paid homage to civil rights heroes, such as scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and the slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr for overcoming "the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation."
"Because of what they did, we are a more perfect union," Obama told a packed hotel ballroom.
"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 (Civil War-era US president Abraham) 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."
Race played a contentious role in Obama's election campaign, and he faced criticism for both overstating and understating his racial heritage.
He often tiptoed gingerly around the issue, and though Obama delivered a major address on race in the midst of his presidential campaign, he mostly took pains not to present himself as a candidate who would focus on Black America's concerns at the expense of other communities.
But during his first address to civil rights leaders since his historic November election, Obama spoke at length about the problems in black communities and the challenges they still face, decades after US law banned segregation.
He paid tribute to the progress made by the civil rights movement, but he added: "We know that too many barriers still remain."
Obama said: "I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. But make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America."
Obama pointed to the spiraling costs of healthcare, noting that African Americans are "more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anyone else."
Black youths, he noted, are five times more likely than their white counterparts to go to prison, and the scourge of HIV/Aids, while ravaging regions such as Africa, is "devastating the African-American community here at home with disproportionate force."
But with a sizzling cadence invoking the passion of a southern preacher, Obama warned that "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."
The son of a onetime Kenyan goat herder and a white mother from Kansas, Obama related details of his recent trip to Ghana, where he visited Cape Coast Castle, a historic fort that held slaves before they were transported to the Americas.
The visit, Obama said, reminded him of the "all the pain and all the hardships."
"But I was also reminded of something else. I was reminded that no matter how bitter the rod or how stony the road, we have persevered."
Obama also drew on his biography, describing how his mother raised him as a single parent, to call for a renewed sense of personal responsibility among African-Americans, urging black families to set the bar higher for their children.
"We can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities" as parents, Obama said.
"Our kids can't all aspire to be the next LeBron (James, a basketball star) or (rapper) Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers," he said.