Michelle Obama: ‘Our journey is far, far from finished!’
1st October 2012 · 0 Comments
By Hazel Trice Edney
(TriceEdneyWire.com) — First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking to a standing-room-only dinner crowd of more than 2,000 mostly African Americans Saturday night, drew from the experience of the Civil Rights Movement to inspire people to vote, saying although “there are no more ‘whites only’ signs keeping us out, no one barring our children from the schoolhouse door, we know that our journey is far, far from finished!”
Receiving rousing applause from the audience at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Phoenix Awards Dinner, Mrs. Obama, who has accompanied the President as he addressed the dinner the past three years, clearly intended to inspire the people to turn out on November 6 — even in an atmosphere of voter intimidation in dozens of states around the nation and during a season of apparent voter apathy in the Black community.
“So we cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots,” she said. “We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth. It is up to us to make sure that in every election, every voice is heard and every vote is counted. And that means making sure our laws preserve that right. It means monitoring the polls to ensure that every eligible voter can exercise that right.”
She continued, “This is the movement of our era—protecting that fundamental right not just for this election, but for the next generation and generations to come. Because in the end, it’s not just about who wins, or who loses, or who we vote for on Election Day. It’s about who we are as Americans.”
Dozens of Republican-led states have taken on new voter laws; particularly requirements that voters show identifications at the polls. Despite contentions that the new laws are meant to prevent voter fraud, civil rights leaders contend the motive is to inhibit the voting of Blacks and Latinos, especially given that there is little evidence of a voter fraud problem in the U.S. Civil rights leaders predict at least five million African Americans could be disenfranchised because of the changes.
Though the First Lady only alluded to voter intimidation as she spoke of the fight for the right to vote, her speech focused as much on the possibility that some might stay at home on Election Day.
“As citizens of this great country, that is our most fundamental right, our most solemn obligation—to cast our ballots and have our say in the laws that shape our lives. Congressman Lewis understood the importance of that right. That’s why he faced down that row of billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, risking his life so we could one day cast our ballots,” she said. “But today, how many of us have asked someone whether they’re going to vote, and they say, no, I’m too busy—and besides, I voted last time; or, nah, it’s not like my vote is going to make a difference? See, after so many folks sacrificed so much so that we could make our voices heard, too many of us still choose not to participate.”
As Mrs. Obama exhorted people to the polls, the President was out on the campaign trail. In fact, as the CBC dinner got started at 6, the President was campaigning in Milwaukee.
Though her speech was punctuated with applause, the quiet buzz among people in the audience was still about the President’s absence.
“She was on point. She probably wasn’t as fiery as the President would have been, but the message was well-spoken and well-taken,” said Gretchen Wharton, a Washington, D.C. native who has attended when the President was speaking.
Last year, President Obama received thunderous applause although some CBC members took offense to his chiding, telling them to “stop complaining”. The President’s subtle rebuke was an obvious response to some CBC members who had publically criticized him for not taking direct action to lower the Black jobless rate.
The message of First Lady Michelle Obama was clearly different, even stroking the 41-year-old, 43-member CBC with a large part of her speech, which was focused on the Caucus’ history and struggles on behalf of America.
“Since its earliest days, this caucus has been taking on challenges and leading the way in the urgent work of perfecting our union—fighting for jobs and health care, working to give all our children opportunities worthy of their promise, standing up for the least among us every day, and earning the proud distinction as the ‘conscience of Congress,’” she said to applause. “That is the legacy of this Caucus. And that’s also what I want to talk a little bit about tonight. I want to talk about how we carry on that legacy for the next generation and generations to come.”
Ultimately, she used a story to remind the audience of the fact that, despite any disagreements with the President, they helped him to make history four years ago as the nation’s first Black president. In doing so, she told the story of a little boy who visited the White House with his parents and brother and a photo that resulted.
“The father was a member of the White House staff, and he’d brought his wife and two young sons to meet my husband. In the photo, Barack is bent over at the waist. And one of the sons—a little boy, just about five years old—is reaching out his tiny little hand to touch my husband’s head,” she described.
“And it turns out that upon meeting Barack, this little boy gazed up at him longingly and he said, ‘I want to know if my hair is just like yours.’ And Barack replied, ‘Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?’ So he bent way down so the little boy could feel his hair. And after touching my husband’s head, the little boy exclaimed, ‘Yes, it does feel the same!’”
Mrs. Obama concluded, “Now, every couple of weeks, the White House photographers change out all the photos in the West Wing—except for that one.
“That one—and that one alone — has hung on that wall for more than three years. So if you ever wonder whether change is possible, I want you to think about that little Black boy in the office—the Oval Office of the White House—touching the head of the first Black President.”
With that, she exhorted the applauding audience to press their way to the polls in the face of the history and modern-day racial struggle in America:
“So through all the many heartbreaks and trials, all of you, and so many who came before you, you have kept the faith. You could only see that Promised Land from a distance,” she said. “But you never let it out of your sight. And today, if we are once again willing to work for it, if we’re once again willing to sacrifice for it, then I know—I know—that we can carry on that legacy. I know that we can meet our obligation to continue that struggle. And I know that we can finish the journey we started and finally fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our children.”
This article was originally published in the October 1, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper