Barack Obama pressed his call Monday for African Americans to take more personal responsibility for their children and within their communities in a speech to the NAACP that directly confronted the complaints of Jesse Jackson about Obama's approach to problems affecting blacks.
Obama, the first African American to clinch a major party's presidential nomination, could not have chosen a more deliberate forum for his remarks than the 99th convention of the nation's largest civil rights organization.
"We got to demand more responsibility from Washington … and we got to demand more responsibility from Wall Street, but you know what?" said Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee. "We also have to demand more from ourselves. …
"Now, I know there's some who've been saying I've been too tough, talking about responsibility," he went on. "At the NAACP, I'm here to report I'm never going to stop talking about it." He told the crowd that "no matter how much money we invest in our communities, or how many 10-point plans we propose or how many government programs we launch — none of it will make a difference, at least not enough of a difference, if we don't seize more responsibility in our own lives."
His remarks about responsibility, which came toward the end of his speech, were greeted by growing applause and cheers. By the end, the crowd was on its feet when he held out the prospect of returning next year to address the group's 100th convention as president.
Obama has addressed larger audiences during this year's campaign and other audiences that were enthusiastic, but he may have never addressed a group to whom his presidential candidacy had deeper meaning than the NAACP. Three thousand delegates filled the hall at the downtown Duke Energy Convention Center with room for another 1,400 in an overflow room.
"This is history in the making," said Annie Burton, 49, of Texas City, Texas, wearing an Obama T-shirt and Obama beret. "This is once in a lifetime."
Still, there was some concern expressed in the hall before the speech began about whether Obama's attempts to appeal to white voters had diluted his commitment to issues of particular importance to black people. That was a point Jackson, the civil rights activist who ran for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, was making last week in comments he didn't realize were being picked up by an open mike.
He complained that Obama was "talking down to black people" at a Chicago church in a Father's Day stump speech that made similar points. Jackson apologized for using crude language in his critique, but the substantive point was one that political scientist Ron Walters says he has heard expressed on black-radio call-in shows and elsewhere.
"It is a very important subterranean discussion that's going on about the extent to which Barack has to deal with the white community, because that's where most of the votes are, and on the other hand he has to deal with the black community because that's part of his base," says Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland who was an adviser to Jackson's campaigns and who appears at the convention Wednesday.
Many black voters want to hear more about social programs and institutional change to deal with problems in housing, health care and education, he said. "There is a back-and-forth, fine-line dance that he's got going on here."
Estelle Holmes, 60, an NAACP delegate from Hitchcock, Texas, is an Obama fan who said she also agrees with Jackson. She noted that Obama grew up in circumstances unfamiliar to most black Americans — born in Hawaii to a white woman and a black Kenyan.
"But I think he feels the pain of African Americans," she adds. And she said she is certain that Obama's wife, Michelle, who grew up in Chicago, does.
In his speech, Obama paid homage to the NAACP and pioneers of the civil rights movement, including Julian Bond, who introduced him to the Cincinnati crowd.
"I know that Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown v. Board of Education so that some of us could stop doing our jobs as parents. That wasn't the deal," Obama said. "And I know that nine little children did not walk through a schoolhouse door in Little Rock so that we could stand by and let our children drop out of school and turn to gangs for the support they are not getting elsewhere."
Obama, who was raised by a single mother, promised to invest in a laundry list of social programs before talking about the roles of parents. "It starts with teaching our daughters to never allow images on television to tell them what they are worth," he said, "and teaching our sons to treat women with respect, and to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them men is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one."