Fox News, the Daily Caller and other conservative outlets are trumpeting a June 2007 speech President Obama gave at Hampton University, arguing the “racially charged and at times angry speech undermines Obama’s carefully-crafted image as a leader eager to build bridges between ethnic groups,” in the words of the Daily Caller.
In the speech to a group of black ministers, Obama praises his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright, noting the role Wright played in both his marriage and religious life. (The speech was months before the pastor emerged as a more controversial and well-known figure, and Obama distanced himself from Wright.) Obama also highlights the plight of people who live in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and argues the government has not helped them as much as it did the victims of the September 11 attacks.
“America will survive. Just like black folks will survive,” Obama says. “We won’t forget where we came from. We won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.”
Conservatives are casting the video as the political equivalent of Mitt Romney’s controversial comments about the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, while Democrats noted that Obama’s praise of Wright back then and his criticisms of the Bush administration response to Katrina are nothing new.
The highlighting of the video appears to be intentionally-timed around the start of the first presidential debate.
FULL TEXT: Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Hampton University Annual Ministers’ Conference
By Barack Obama
Delivered on 5 June 2007.
It is an honor to be here at Hampton University. It is a privilege to stand with so many ministers from across this country and we thank God and all His blessings for this wonderful day.
A few weeks ago, I attended a service at First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the LA Riots. After a jury acquitted 4 police officers of beating Rodney King-a beating that was filmed and flashed around the world- Los Angeles erupted. I remember the sense of despair and powerlessness in watching one of America’s greatest cities engulfed in flames.
But in the middle of that desperate time, there was a miracle: a baby born with a bullet in its arm. We need to hear about these miracles in these desperate times because they are the blessings that can unite us when some in the world try to drive a wedge between our common humanity and deep, abiding faith. And this story, too, starts with a baby.
We learned about this child from a doctor named Andy Moosa. He was working the afternoon shift on April 30 at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood as the second day of violence was exploding in the streets.
He told us about a pregnant woman who had been wearing a white dress. She was in Compton and on her way to the supermarket. Where the bullet came from nobody knew. Her sister-in-law noticed a red spot in the middle of her white dress and said that I think you’ve been shot. The bullet had gone in, but it had not exited. The doctor described the ultrasound and how he realized that the bullet was in the baby. The doctor said, “We could tell it was lodged in one of the upper limbs. We needed to get this baby out so we were in the delivery room.”
And here’s the thing: the baby looked great. Except for the swelling in the right elbow in the fleshy part, it hadn’t even fractured a bone. The bullet had lodged in the soft tissue in the muscle. By God’s grace, the baby was fine. It was breathing and crying and kicking. They removed the bullet, stitched up the baby’s arm, and everything was fine. The doctor went on to say that there’s always going to be a scar to remind that child how quickly she came into the world in very unusual circumstances.
I’ve been thinking and praying about that story. I’ve been thinking that there’s always going to be a scar there, that doesn’t go away. You take the bullet out. You stitch up the wound and 15 years later, there’s still going to be a scar.
Many of the folks in this room know just where they were when the riot in Los Angeles started and tragedy struck the corner of Florence and Normandy. And most of the ministers here know that those riots didn’t erupt over night; there had been a “quiet riot” building up in Los Angeles and across this country for years.
If you had gone to any street corner in Chicago or Baton Rouge or Hampton — you would have found the same young men and women without hope, without miracles, and without a sense of destiny other than life on the edge — the edge of the law, the edge of the economy, the edge of family structures and communities.
Those “quiet riots” that take place every day are born from the same place as the fires and the destruction and the police decked out in riot gear and the deaths. They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better. You tell yourself, my school will always be second rate. You tell yourself, there will never be a good job waiting for me to excel at. You tell yourself, I will never be able to afford a place that I can be proud of and call my home. That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, “Not guilty” — or a hurricane hits New Orleans — and that despair is revealed for the world to see.
Much of what we saw on our television screens 15 years ago was Los Angeles expressing a lingering, ongoing, pervasive legacy-a tragic legacy out of the tragic history this country has never fully come to terms with. This is not to excuse the violence of bashing in a man’s head or destroying someone’s store and their life’s work. That kind of violence is inexcusable and self-defeating. It does, however, describe the reality of many communities around this country.
And it made me think about our cities and communities all around this country, how not only do we still have scars from that riot and the “quiet riots” that happen every day-but how in too many places we haven’t even taken the bullet out.
Look at what happened in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast when Katrina hit. People ask me whether I thought race was the reason the response was so slow. I said, “No. This Administration was colorblind in its incompetence.” But everyone here knows the disaster and the poverty happened long before that hurricane hit. All the hurricane did was make bare what we ignore each and every day which is that there are whole sets of communities that are impoverished, that don’t have meaningful opportunity, that don’t have hope and they are forgotten. This disaster was a powerful metaphor for what’s gone on for generations.
Of course, the federal response after Katrina was similar to the response after the riots in Los Angeles. People in Washington wake up and are surprised that there’s poverty in our midst, and that others were frustrated and angry. Then there are panels and there are hearings. There are commissions. There are reports. Aid dollars are approved but they can’t seem to get to the people. And then nothing really changes except the news coverage quiets down.
This isn’t to diminish the extraordinary generosity of the American people at the time. Our churches and denominations were particularly generous during this time, sending millions of dollars, thousands of volunteers and countless prayers down to the Gulf Coast.
But despite this extraordinary generosity, here we are 19 months later – or 15 years later in the case of LA — and the homes haven’t been built, the businesses haven’t returned, and those same communities are still drowning and smoldering under the same hopelessness as before the tragedy hit.
And so God is asking us today to remember that miracle of that baby. And He is asking us to take that bullet out once more.
If we have more black men in prison than are in our colleges and universities, then it’s time to take the bullet out. If we have millions of people going to the emergency room for treatable illnesses like asthma; it’s time to take the bullet out. If too many of our kids don’t have health insurance; it’s time to take the bullet out. If we keep sending our kids to dilapidated school buildings, if we keep fighting this war in Iraq, a war that never should have been authorized and waged, a war that’s costing us $275 million dollars a day and a war that is taking too many innocent lives — if we have all these challenges and nothing’s changing, then every minister in America needs to come together — form our own surgery teams— and take the bullets out.
So what’s stopping us? What’s stopping us from taking these bullets out and rebuilding our families, our communities, our nation and our faith in one another? What’s stopping us from seeing the light and the way and the faith that unites us?
Well, I’ve been on a journey trying to get at the truth of that question.
That journey started a long time ago in Hawaii, but it got interesting when I moved to Chicago. I moved there when I was just a year out of college, and a group of churches offered me a job as a community organizer so I could help rebuild neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel plants.
They didn’t pay me much, but they gave me enough to live on plus something extra to buy an old, beat-up car, and so I took the job and drove out to Chicago, where I didn’t know a soul. And during the time I was there, we worked to set up job training programs for the unemployed and after school programs for kids.
It was also there – at Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago – that I met Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who took me on another journey and introduced me to a man named Jesus Christ. It was the best education I ever had. At and working in the South Side, I learned that when church folks come together, they can achieve extraordinary things.
After three years, I went back across this country to law school. I left there with a degree and a lifetime of debt, but I turned down the corporate job offers so I could come back to Chicago and organize a voter registration drive. I also started a civil rights practice, and began to teach constitutional law.
After a few years, people started coming up to me and telling me I should run for state Senate. So I did what every man does when he’s faced with a big decision – I prayed on it, and I asked my wife. And after consulting those two higher powers, I decided to get in the race.
Everywhere I’d go, I’d get two questions. First, they’d ask, “Where’d you get that funny name, Barack Obama?” Because people just couldn’t pronounce it. They’d call me ” Alabama,” or they’d call me “Yo Mama.” And I’d tell them that my father was from Kenya, and that’s where I got my name. And my mother was from Kansas, and that’s where I got my accent from.
And the second thing people would ask me gets back to the question about why we can’t seem to take the bullet out in this country and do the works and the deeds and unite this country.
They’d say, “You seem like a nice young man. You’ve done all this great work. You’ve been a community organizer, and you teach law school, you’re a civil rights attorney, you’re a family man – why would you wanna go into something dirty and nasty like politics?”
And I understand the question, and the cynicism. We all understand it.
We understand it because we get the sense today that politics has become a business and not a mission. The leaders in Washington have forgotten President Kennedy’s call to remember that “here on Earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
In the last several years, we have seen Washington become a place where driving the wedge to further divide us and keeping score of who’s up and who’s down is more important than who’s working on behalf of the sick and the hungry and the lonely.
We have been told that our mounting debts don’t matter, that the economy is doing great, and that people’s anxieties about rising health care costs and disappearing pensions aren’t a big deal. We’ve been told that climate change is a hoax, that our broken schools cannot be fixed, and that we are destined to send millions of dollars a day to Mideast dictators for their oil.