July 16, 2009
Hilton New York
New York, New York Thank you. What an extraordinary night, capping off an extraordinary week, capping off an extraordinary 100 years at the NAACP.
So Chairman Bond, Brother Justice, I am so grateful to all of you for being here. It's just good to be among friends.
It is an extraordinary honor to be here, in the city where the NAACP was formed, to mark its centennial. 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 100 years.
It's a journey that takes us back to a time before most of us were born, long before the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act, Brown v. Board of Education; back to an America just a generation past slavery. It was a time when Jim Crow was a way of life; when lynchings were all too common; when race riots were shaking cities across a segregated land.
It was in this America where an Atlanta scholar named W.E.B. Du Bois, a man of towering intellect and a fierce passion for justice, sparked what became known as the Niagara movement; where reformers united, not by color, but by cause; where an association was born that would, as its charter says, promote equality and eradicate prejudice among citizens of the United States.
From the beginning, these founders understood how change would come—just as King and all the civil rights giants did later. They understood that unjust laws needed to be overturned; that legislation needed to be passed; and that presidents needed to be pressured into action. They knew that the stain of slavery and the sin of segregation had to be lifted in the courtroom, and in the legislature, and in the hearts and the minds of Americans.
They also knew that here, in America, change would have to come from the people. It would come from people protesting lynchings, rallying against violence, all those women who decided to walk instead of taking the bus, even though they were tired after a long day of doing somebody else's laundry, looking after somebody else's children. It would come from men and women of every age and faith, and every race and region—taking Greyhounds on Freedom Rides; sitting down at Greensboro lunch counters; registering voters in rural Mississippi, knowing they would be harassed, knowing they would be beaten, knowing that some of them might never return.
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, black governors, and members of Congress served in places where they might once have been able not just to vote but even take a sip of water. And because ordinary people did such extraordinary things, because they made the civil rights movement their own, even though there may not be a plaque or their names might not be in the history books—because of their efforts I made a little trip to Springfield, Illinois, a couple years ago where Lincoln once lived, and race riots once raged—and began the journey that has led me to be here tonight as the 44th President of the United States of America.
Because of them I stand here tonight, on the shoulders of giants. And I'm here to say thank you to those pioneers and thank you to the NAACP.
And yet, even as we celebrate the remarkable achievements of the past 100 years; even as we inherit extraordinary progress that cannot be denied; even as we marvel at the courage and determination of so many plain folk—we know that too many barriers still remain.
We know that even as our economic crisis batters Americans of all races, African Americans are out of work more than just about anybody else—a gap that's widening here in New York City, as a detailed report this week by Comptroller Bill Thompson laid out.
We know that even as spiraling healthcare costs crush families of all races, African Americans are more likely to suffer from a host of diseases but less likely to own health insurance than just about anybody else.