Obama: Your destiny is in your hands

President Barack Obama paid homage to the NAACP as a pioneering civil rights group, saying that civil rights leaders from decades past paved the way for his election as the first black U.S. leader, but telling them their work remains unfinished...

Watch Obama’s entire speech to the NAACP below

NEW YORK (AP) — President Barack Obama paid homage to a pioneering civil rights group, saying that civil rights leaders from decades past paved the way for his election as the first black U.S. leader, but telling them their work remains unfinished.

Obama traced his historic rise to power to the vigor and valor of black civil rights leaders, telling the NAACP, the oldest U.S. civil rights organization, on Thursday night that their sacrifice “began the journey that has led me here.” He also prodded them to look beyond simply African-American rights as the group celebrated its 100th convention.

“Make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” the president told the friendly audience that erupted in standing applause and the occasional “Amen” during his remarks.

Rousing his audience, Obama offered his most direct speech on race since winning the White House. He had worked on the address for about two weeks and revised it until shortly before he spoke, his aides said, underscoring the importance of his message and his audience.

Implicit in his appearance was that he is seeking the backing of the powerful National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its members for his ambitious domestic agenda. He also is careful not to forget a groundswell of black voters who reshaped the electoral map, although they didn’t singularly deliver him to the White House.

Painting himself as the beneficiary of the group’s work, Obama cited historical figures from writer W.E.B. DuBois to Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. to explain how the path to the presidency was cleared by visionaries.

Despite the racial progress exemplified by his own election, Obama said African-Americans must overcome a disproportionate share of struggles, including being more likely to suffer from many diseases and having a higher proportion of children end up in jail.

Watch Obama’s entire speech to the NAACP

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“They’re very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations. They’re very different from the ones faced when fire hoses and dogs were being turned on young marchers,” Obama said. “But what’s required to overcome today’s barriers is the same as what was needed then. The same commitment. The same sense of urgency.”

Obama said many Americans still face discrimination and suggested the NAACP — looking to declare a mission for its second century — might embrace a broader mandate in coming years.

Obama’s remarks, steeped in his personal biography as the son of a white mother from Kansas and black father from Kenya, challenged people to take greater responsibility for their own future.

Throughout his comments, Obama sought a balance, contending that the government must foster equality but individuals must take charge of their own lives. It was reminiscent of earlier Obama speeches, calling on fathers to help their children and adopting a tone that at times seemed drawn from the church pulpit.

“We have to say to our children, ‘Yes, if you’re African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face,” Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign.

“But that’s not a reason to get bad grades, that’s not a reason to cut class, that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands.”

Today, Obama said, it is not prejudice or discrimination that presents the greatest obstacles for blacks, but rather structural inequities— in areas such as education and health care. Still, he said discrimination persists — and not just for blacks — and chided those who may contend otherwise.

Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela in New York and Ben Feller in Washington contributed to this report.
(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

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