Editor’s Note: The following is an edited version of an address delivered by President Barack Obama on Saturday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual Phoenix Awards Dinner at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The text was provided by the White House. It was edited for length.
I suppose the reason I enjoy coming to the CBC — what this weekend is all about — is you and me, we're all a little bit crazy but hopefully a good kind of crazy. We’re a good kind of crazy because no matter how hard things get, we keep the faith; we keep fighting; we keep moving forward.
And we've needed faith over these last couple years. Times have been hard. It’s been three years since we faced down a crisis that began on Wall Street and then spread to Main Street and hammered working families and hammered an already hard-hit black community. The unemployment rate for black folks went up to nearly 17 percent — the highest it’s been in almost three decades; 40 percent, almost, of African American children living in poverty; fewer than half convinced that they can achieve Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s dream. You’ve got to be a little crazy to have faith during such hard times.
It’s heartbreaking and it’s frustrating. And I ran for president, and the members of the CBC ran for Congress, to help more Americans reach that dream. We ran to give every child a chance, whether he’s born in Chicago or she comes from a rural town in the Delta. This crisis has made that job of giving everybody opportunity a little bit harder.
We knew at the outset of my presidency that the economic calamity we faced wasn’t caused overnight and wasn’t going to be solved overnight. We knew that long before the recession hit, the middle class in this country had been falling behind — wages and incomes had been stagnant; a sense of financial security had been slipping away. And since these problems were not caused overnight, we knew we were going to have to climb a steep hill.
But we got to work. With your help, we started fighting our way back from the brink. And at every step of the way, we’ve faced fierce opposition based on an old idea — the idea that the only way to restore prosperity can’t just be to let every corporation write its own rules or give out tax breaks to the wealthiest and the most fortunate and to tell everybody that they're on their own. There has to be a different concept of what America’s all about. It has to be based on the idea that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper, and we’re in this together. We are in this thing together.
We had a different vision and so we did what was right and we fought to extend unemployment insurance, and we fought to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, and we fought to expand the Child Tax Credit — which benefited nearly half of all African-American children in this country. And millions of Americans are better off because of that fight.
When an army of lobbyists and special interests spent millions to crush Wall Street reform, we stood up for what was right. We said the time has come to protect homeowners from predatory mortgage lenders. The time has come to protect consumers from credit card companies that jacked up rates without warning. We signed the strongest consumer financial protection in history. That’s what we did together.
We’re attacking the cycle of poverty that steals the future from too many children, not just by pouring money into a broken system, but by building on what works, with Promise Neighborhoods modeled after the good work up in Harlem; Choice Neighborhoods rebuilding crumbling public housing into communities of hope and opportunity; Strong Cities, Strong Communities, our partnership with local leaders in hard-hit cities like Cleveland and Detroit. And we overcame years of inaction to win justice for black farmers because of the leadership of the CBC and because we had an administration that was committed to doing the right thing.
And against all sorts of setbacks, when the opposition fought us with everything they had, we finally made clear that in the United States of America nobody should go broke because they get sick. We are better than that. And today, insurance companies can no longer drop or deny your coverage for no good reason. In just a year and a half, about one million more young adults have health insurance because of this law, and we did it with your help, with the CBC’s help.
So in these hard years, we’ve won a lot of fights that needed fighting and we’ve done a lot of good. But we’ve got more work to do. So many people are still hurting. So many people are still barely hanging on. And too many people in this city are still fighting us every step of the way.
So I need your help. We have to do more to put people to work right now. We’ve got to make sure that everyone in this country gets a fair shake, and a fair shot, and a chance to get ahead. And I know we won’t get where we need to go if we don’t travel down this road together. I need you with me.
That starts with getting this Congress to pass the American Jobs Act. You heard me talk about this plan when I visited Congress a few weeks ago and sent the bill to Congress a few days later. Now I want that bill back — passed. I’ve got the pens all ready. I am ready to sign it. And I need your help to make it happen…
When Michelle and I think about where we came from — a little girl on the South Side of Chicago, son of a single mom in Hawaii —mother had to go to school on scholarships, sometimes got food stamps. Michelle's parents never owned their own home until she had already graduated, living upstairs above the aunt who actually owned the house. We are here today only because our parents and our grandparents, they broke their backs to support us.
But they also understood that they would get a little bit of help from their country. Because they met their responsibilities, this country would also be responsible, would also provide good public schools, would also provide recreation — parks that were safe, making sure that they could take the bus without getting beat over the head, making sure that their kids would be able to go to college even if they weren’t rich.
We're only here because past generations struggled and sacrificed for this incredible, exceptional idea that it does not matter where you come from, it does not matter where you’re born, doesn’t matter what you look like — if you’re willing to put in an effort, you should get a shot. You should get a shot at the American Dream.
And each night, when we tuck in our girls at the White House, I think about keeping that dream alive for them and for all of our children. And that’s now up to us. And that’s hard. This is harder than it’s been in a long, long time. We’re going through something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.
And I know at times that gets folks discouraged. I know. I listen to some of you all. I understand that. And nobody feels that burden more than I do. Because I know how much we have invested in making sure that we’re able to move this country forward. But you know, more than a lot of other folks in this country, we know about hard. The people in this room know about hard. And we don’t give in to discouragement.
Throughout our history, change has often come slowly. Progress often takes time. We take a step forward, sometimes we take two steps back. Sometimes we get two steps forward and one step back. But it’s never a straight line. It’s never easy. And I never promised easy. Easy has never been promised to us. But we’ve had faith. We have had faith. We’ve had that good kind of crazy that says you can’t stop marching.
Even when folks are hitting you over the head, you can’t stop marching. Even when they’re turning the hoses on you, you can’t stop. Even when somebody fires you for speaking out, you can’t stop. Even when it looks like there’s no way, you find a way — you can’t stop. Through the mud and the muck and the driving rain, we don’t stop. Because we know the rightness of our cause — widening the circle of opportunity, standing up for everybody’s opportunities, increasing each other’s prosperity. We know our cause is just. It’s a righteous cause.
So in the face of troopers and teargas, folks stood unafraid. Led somebody like John Lewis to wake up after getting beaten within an inch of his life on Sunday — he wakes up on Monday: We’re going to go march.
I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.
Photo: Barack Obama