(The Root) — On the heels of her widely praised speech at the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama delivered another high-profile address, this time at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual Phoenix Awards gala in Washington, D.C. As first reported on The Root, this year marked the first lady’s first year delivering a keynote at the event where her husband has spoken in previous years.
The first lady was warmly embraced by the Phoenix Awards audience, just like she was by the supportive crowd at the Democratic National Convention, but that is where similarities between the two speeches end. Her speech before the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation audience was one of the most overtly political of her tenure as first lady, drawing comparisons between the civil rights battles of the 20th century and what’s at stake in the 2012 presidential election.
Though she’s no stranger to the campaign trail, the first lady’s speeches have tended to focus on policy and her husband’s accomplishments, without wading too deeply into controversial political terrain. Her Democratic Convention speech was hailed for its subtlety, drawing contrasts to her husband’s opponent, while never mentioning him by name, and making references to reproductive rights, while never mentioning abortion. But there was little subtlety about her Phoenix Awards speech. Mrs. Obama’s message was explicit: We are in the political and civil rights battle of our time, and we all have to roll up our sleeves and fight.
Opening her remarks by recalling some of the racist obstacles various members of the Congressional Black Caucus had to overcome to succeed (including Rep. Barbara Lee’s near-death because a white hospital delayed treatment for her mother during childbirth) the first lady concluded that the sociopolitical battles of today may be different from past civil rights battles, but are no less important. This sentiment will likely draw criticism from the political right, for whom racism and discrimination in the age of the first black president has been characterized as a myth perpetuated by the progressive left.
Seeming to acknowledge those who question the magnitude of today’s struggle for equality, the first lady spoke about the nuances of defining today’s battles, in which the fights are no longer against Jim Crow-era segregation, but challenges that are less obvious — and therefore tougher to overcome.
“But today,” she said, “while there are no more ‘whites only’ signs keeping us out, no one barring our children from the schoolhouse door, we know that our journey is far, far from finished. But in many ways, the path forward for this next generation is far less clear.” Speaking of educational and health disparities affecting our children, she asked, “What court case do we bring on their behalf? What laws can be passed to end those wrongs?”
Mrs. Obama’s conclusion was that ultimately the best way to continue the fight is at the polls on Election Day, this year and in each election to come. “And make no mistake about it, this is the march of our time — marching door to door, registering people to vote. Marching everyone you know to the polls every single election. See, this is the sit-in of our day: sitting in a phone bank, sitting in your living room, calling everyone you know — your friends, your neighbors, that nephew you haven’t seen in a while, that classmate you haven’t spoken to in years — making sure they all know how to register, where to vote, every year, in every election. This is the movement of our era — protecting that fundamental right, not just for this election, but for the next generation and generations to come.”
The tone of Mrs. Obama’s speech is particularly noteworthy, because the president has endured criticism from members of the Congressional Black Caucus for what they perceive as his administration’s lackluster approach to addressing issues that disproportionately affect black Americans. More specifically, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver and others have noted the president’s seeming hesitancy to articulate any specific overtures to black Americans at all, for fear that critics will accuse him of pro-black favoritism, or of being antiwhite. But by the same token, black voters had a major hand in electing President Obama; he cannot afford to ignore black Americans and their needs, specifically and directly, if he expects to have a second term.
Michelle Obama’s speech tonight, though deftly executed, was perhaps one of the most public acknowledgments of this reality by anyone in the Obama camp this election cycle, save for Vice President Joe Biden’s “chains” remark. Her speech was a testament to the importance of black voters and the importance of black congressional members as the key liaisons for the Obama campaign to those voters.