Election 2008

Obama Salutes Old Guard In NAACP Speech

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Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama spoke Monday at the NAACP convention in Cincinnati, reiterating his message calling for more personal responsibility from blacks. The task for Obama was to connect the group's civil rights legacy to his own ambitions.


Senator Barack Obama was the first of the two major presidential candidates to take the stage this week in Cincinnati, Ohio. That's the location of the convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP is the oldest and largest civil rights organization of its kind and this year it celebrates its 99th anniversary. The task for Senator Obama was to connect that legacy to his ambitions now.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: In the early days of Senator Barack Obama's presidential campaign, it wasn't always clear how much of the old guard of the civil rights movement would be with him. But last night the senator made it clear he knew what he had inherited from them.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): It's because of them and all those whose names never made it into the history books, those men and women young and old, black, brown, white, clear-eyed, straight-backed, who refused to settle for the world as it is, who had the courage to remake the world as it should be, it's because of them that I stand before you tonight as the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: Obama saluted civil rights activists from Dr. Martin Luther King and Julian Bond to John Lewis and Diane Nash. But he did not mention one King protege: the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the only other black presidential candidate to come close to Obama's mainstream success. Last week Jackson apologized for derogatory comments he made about Obama and about the candidate's speeches on black parental responsibility. And last night Barack Obama went right back to the tough love approach that got him on Jackson's bad side.

Sen. OBAMA: We need societal responsibility and we need individual responsibility. We need politicians doing what they're supposed to do and CEOs doing what they're supposed to do, and we need parents doing what they're supposed to do.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: That's how we'll truly honor those who came before us.

CORNISH: And that was just fine with Florence Howard, a delegate from Memphis. Howard says that those who believe that Obama is talking down to blacks or that the candidate is not focused enough on black people have unrealistic expectations about his presidential run.

Ms. FLORENCE HOWARD (Delegate): It's almost like people who get along so well until they get married. It's like (unintelligible) you know, they can't get along. But as long as they're just dating, right, they're getting along. So I think it's that kind of thing where expectations come out that are very subconscious that they come into play. And I think those are the kinds of things that we have to be mindful of.

CORNISH: And observer Steve Francis of Columbus, Ohio agrees.

Mr. STEVE FRANCIS (Observer): Well, I think that they owe each other respect for whatever their generation brings to the table.

CORNISH: Francis adds that there will have to be some straddling of the divide between civil rights leaders who had their day and black politicians like Obama who are stepping up. Francis says he hopes that even this gaffe by Jackson will help bring about the changing of the guard.

Mr. FRANCIS: Jesse Jackson may not fully respect the new generation of leadership. Barack Obama is having trouble reaching and engaging the older generation of leadership. So there has to be some type of way to get them together and have the minds meet so that we can figure out how to reach all of those segments of the society.

CORNISH: Republican John McCain will bring his own message of unity and change when he addresses the NAACP here tomorrow.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Cincinnati.

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