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Civil Rights leaders applaud Obama’s new initiatives

President Obama gives his State of the Union Address Feb. 12.  THE WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

President Obama gives his State of the Union Address Feb. 12.
THE WHITE HOUSE PHOTO

By Hazel Trice Edney
Trice Edney News Wire

Two weeks ago, a group of civil rights leaders, led by National Urban League President Marc Morial, threw down the gauntlet, strongly urging President Barack Obama to address the jobs crisis and economics in America’s urban communities.

Gauging applause following Obama’s Feb. 12 State of the Union address, he is at least beginning to meet the demand.

“We applaud President Obama for making clear his focus on job creation and preparing our youth for success in college, work and life as the keys to economic prosperity for our communities and country. We echo his call for swift passage of the American Jobs Act, which we believe will level the playing field for many Americans who have yet to benefit from the economic recovery,” said Morial in a statement immediately following the speech.

NAACP President Ben Jealous agreed. “The president knocked it out of the park,” he said in an interview. “The president understands … that persistent poverty and violence are connected. This was a response to our call for clear and real solutions to the jobs crisis that’s been plaguing our community.”

His first State of the Union speech in his second term, the president was pressured by high expectations. With America’s gun violence suddenly spreading from the inner cities into the suburbs with a rash of mass shootings, his challenge was — in part — to speak to them both with equal compassion. However, an even greater challenge was to address the clearly different causes of the violence — one being the economic crisis in Black communities that the civil rights leaders have highlighted.

“Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it is virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where the chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that’s why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them,” Obama said in the speech, marked by repeated applause.

He continued: “Let’s offer incentives to companies that hire Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance anymore. Let’s put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods. And this year, my administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We’ll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, and education, and housing.”

Most recently, Chicago has become the central point of media attention on gun violence because of the killing of 15-year-old Inaugural majorette, Hadiya Pendleton, whose parents were guests at the State of the Union. They were guests of First Lady Michelle Obama, who had attended Hadiya’s funeral. After the speech, the president also went to Chicago, speaking at Hyde Park Career Academy near the site of Hadiya’s murder.

“There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for us reducing violence than strong, stable families — which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood,” he said, in a deeply personal address.

“Don’t get me wrong. As the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out okay,” he said. “So we’ve got single moms out here, they’re heroic in what they’re doing and we are so proud of them. But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”

In the speech that was punctuated by light laughter and applause, the president also underscored some proposals from the State of the Union such as improvements on public safety, education and housing as well as raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., who, the week before the State of the Union, called for President Obama to “come home,” said he is also pleased with the headway the Obama administration is making in addressing urban crime and poverty.

“The point is that Chicago exposes the complexities of the urban crisis, which requires some plan for reconstruction because it’s been so destroyed,” Rev. Jackson said in an interview. “The issue in Sandy Hook was guns in the hands of a wild man and the gun culture for sport. In Chicago — like Baltimore, like Memphis, like New Orleans — it’s drugs in, guns in, jobs out, houses foreclosed, driving poverty and 40-50 percent unemployment. That’s a different combination.”

Jackson said he agrees with the president’s ideas on background checks and mental health checks before the purchase of handguns. But there’s much more need in Black communities, he said.

“Urban America requires something far more massive than the lack of guns.” He proposes a “reconstruction bank” with trillions of dollars to rebuild communities. “You cannot bring the communities back. You cannot revive the communities on the banks that destroyed them for greed and profit. You need a reconstruction bank.”

Regardless of what the proposals are, most will need to pass a bitter and divided Congress.

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