Friday, July 17, 2009

NAACP: 100 Years, One Historic Night

There are some moments in our lives where we have an "I was there" moment. A moment that despite your best attempts to explain how you felt, what you perceived that others were feeling, the words that were shared and the fanfare of the activity, you still can't convey how remarkable an experience it was that you just shared.
I had that moment on Thursday, July 16th, 2009 as did so many others when President Barack Obama went to the 100th anniversary convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
The President speaks, audience pictured
(President Barack Obama speaks at the NAACP 100th anniversary convention in New York City July 16, 2009.
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.)
Everyone had a feeling of excitement beyond description. Many dignitaries were present. NAACP leaders from across the country embarked to New York - a city filled with historical civil rights moments, which oftentimes are forgotten about because they weren't occurring in the historic South. But, the first moment that captured my attention was watching the line of people form slowly throughout the afternoon as they waited patiently despite their palpable excitement. The look of pride and accomplishment amongst a people who many times didn't feel such positive feelings was evident. Later, as the president met several leaders of NAACP, it was the genuine appreciation that humbled me and made me even more proud to work for him as he shook the hands of the staff despite the large number of them being present. There were a lot of people there whose names many times go unmentioned and unnoticed for work they do to fight for greater equality, never caring that their name is in lights. To have their work recognized by the President of the United States added a special dimension to the night that the media didn't capture, but it was equally important. I was fortunate to see it. I was there.

And then, there was the speech.

(President Barack Obama makes remarks at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP in
New York, Thursday, July 16, 2009. Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who received the Spingarn medal during the banquet - NAACP's highest recognition - simply but eloquently introduced President Obama by saying, "When he came to our convention in 2007, he was one of eight Democratic presidential primary candidates. When he came last year, he was the one - his party's nominee. Now I am honored to give the best introduction of all - please welcome the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama."
The president gave an inspirational speech where his physical presence and empowering words provided a visual reality to so many African-Americans that despite the tests of time AND the adversities of life OUR hopes and dreams can be and ARE being fulfilled.
The feeling in the room was electric. There were African-Americans who lived through the civil rights era and fought to have an equal voice at the table - including the right to vote - there to see an African-American President of the United States during the 100th anniversary of this pillar of the Civil Rights community who were led to many joyful tears, amens, shouts of celebration and reflective statements of how far we have come.
There were older women who were saying "amen" and "tell it" as the president shared that there are no excuses to us achieving more. There was an African-American sailor near me who took photos of every moment of every person he could see. People who couldn't get into the room of 4,200 attendees watched and videotaped from TV screens throughout the Hilton Hotel who didn't complain about not getting in but rather rejoiced in just being in the building for such a historic moment.
His remarks embodied an understanding that we've made progress but we have more mountains to climb. They also reminded us that we have to dream higher and obtain more, which he so beautifully stated by saying, "our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers -- doctors and teachers -- not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. I want them aspiring to be the President of the United States of America."
So for more than 4,000 people at the New York Hilton hotel who were there supporting this hallmark organization, which for 100 years has had many "I was there" moments including the marching, protesting, sitting in and standing tall; from W.E.B. Dubois to Julian Bond, we all shared in this once in a lifetime moment - the first African-American president closing out the 100th anniversary convention of the oldest African-American civil rights group in the country. So for generations to come, I will tell my children, and they will tell their children I was there.


Michael Blake is the Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement & Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs
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