Michelle Obama became the first U.S. first lady to address the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards gala, during the group’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference Saturday, wowing the crowd and making a passionate appeal for African-Americans to register and vote in November.
The first lady, wearing a floor length, black one-shoulder gown with sequined belt, walked out to a standing ovation during the dinner gala, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
During her speech, Mrs. Obama called on black Americans to get engaged in the lives and education of their children, in their communities, and especially at the voting booth.
The 20-minute speech was heavy with historical references. Mrs. Obama saluted Caucus members who have died, and frequently referenced the civil rights battles fought by Georgia Rep. John Lewis, to emphasize the importance of who African Americans place — or allow to be placed — in office.
“We knew that to end slavery we needed a proclamation from the president and an amendment to our constitution,” she said of the black Americans who won hard-fought freedoms enjoyed by later generations. To secure access to the ballot, she added, “we needed congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.”
“Today, while there are no more ‘whites only’ signs keeping us out, our journey isn’t finished,” the first lady said during her just over 20-minute address.
Saying change “starts with each of us taking responsibility for ourselves and our families,” Mrs. Obama called on parents to “turn off the TV” and help their kids with homework, a theme often sounded by her husband.
But “while we need to start at home, we absolutely cannot stop there,” she said. “Our laws still matter.”
The first lady stressed that voting is not just a right won by the sacrifices of thousands, but also a critical responsibility, from state ballots to congress to the vote for president.
“Who is responsible for selecting those public servants? Who is ultimately responsible for the decisions they make? We are,” she said, quoting Lewis in calling voting “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to help create a more perfect union.”
“After so many folks sacrificed so much for our right to participate,” Mrs. Obama said, “too many of us don’t participate.”
“But while we’re sitting down, others are very much engaged,” Mrs. Obama said, in an apparent reference to tea party and other conservative groups fighting to eject her husband from the White House.