Obama tells NAACP blacks must take responsibility

July 14, 2008 7:03:21 PM PDT
Democrat Barack Obama insisted Monday that blacks must show greater responsibility for their actions. In remarks prepared for delivery at the annual NAACP convention, the man who could become the first black president said Washington must provide greater education and economic assistance, but that blacks must demand more of themselves.

"If we're serious about reclaiming that dream, we have to do more in our own lives, our own families and our own communities," Obama said. "That starts with providing the guidance our children need, turning off the TV and putting away the video games; attending those parent-teacher conferences, helping our children with their homework and setting a good example."

He added: "I know some say I've been too tough on folks about this responsibility stuff. But I'm not going to stop talking about it. Because I believe that in the end, it doesn't 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 any difference if we don't seize more responsibility in our own lives."

Obama, who grew up without his father, has spoken and written at length about issues of parental responsibility and fathers participating in their children's lives. Yet a similar speech by the Illinois senator on Father's Day prompted an awkward rebuke from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic presidential contender in 1984 and 1988, a protege of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a fellow Chicago political activist.

Jackson apologized last week after being caught saying on an open microphone that he wanted to castrate Obama for speaking down to blacks.

Republican candidate John McCain is scheduled to address the 99th meeting of the nation's largest civil rights organization on Wednesday.

Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass denied the candidate was trying to boost support among white voters with his own "Sister Souljah" moment. Addressing a black audience in 1992, Democrat presidential candidate Bill Clinton accused the hip-hop artist of inciting violence against whites. Some black leaders, including Jackson, criticized Clinton, but it helped reinforce his image as a politician who refused to pander.

"It's not just a speech aimed at black audiences. It's aimed at all parents," Douglass said. Noting Obama also called for more corporate and government responsibility, she added: "This is a larger theme of responsibility."

While Jackson complained about such Obama speechmaking, other civil rights activists from the NAACP disagreed. They think Obama is doing a good job balancing his role as a black candidate with the need to speak to all races.

"He can't be totally focused on the black community," said Kelvin Shaw, of Shreveport, La., Shaw said he is most interested in what Obama plans on nationwide economic issues like rising oil prices, household costs and jobs. "We need to be talking about not one race, but what affects all people."

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, the city's first directly elected black mayor, disputed Jackson's argument that Obama is ignoring other important issues for blacks such as unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and the number of blacks in prison.

"I think he absolutely has," Mallory said. Besides his messages about responsibility, Mallory said, Obama has talked about jobs, health care, education, and other "areas where black people are disproportionately affected."

Civil rights veteran Julian Bond, the NACCP board chairman, drew loud applause in a speech Sunday night when he described Obama's candidacy as a milestone.

"The country seems proud, and I know all of us here are, that a candidate campaigning in cities where he could not have stayed in a hotel 40 years ago has won his party's nomination for the nation's highest office," Bond said.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist who was an aide on Jackson's presidential bids, said blacks understand Obama is trying to be elected president in a majority-white nation. But he said there has been frustration for those who want Obama to lay out a specific agenda for the black community beyond speeches from the pulpit about responsibility.

McCain plans to talk about education, including expanded merit-pay programs for teachers who improve their students' academic performance.

Walters, the political scientist, said the Arizona Republican's visit is a way to say he wants to represent all groups.

"It strikes a good tone," Walters said. "If (McCain) is elected president, he can say, 'I was there, I have an open door.'"

In his remarks, Obama also criticized his rival. "Sen. McCain is going to be coming here in a couple of days and talking about education, and I'm glad to hear it. But the fact is, what he's offering amounts to little more than the same tired rhetoric about vouchers."