Obama to America’s youth: Civil rights struggle isn’t old news


President Obama convened a group of African American “elders” at the White House on Monday in the hopes of reminding young people that the struggle for civil rights is not so far in the American past.

Before the event could get started, though, a guest leaned over to whisper a different message into his ear, one informed by more than a century of experience.

“This must be the Lord’s doing,” 102-year-old Mabel Harvey told him, “because we’ve come a mighty long way.”


As he delivered his own message in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday marking his birthday, Obama and his administration emphasized the work yet to be done to realize the slain civil rights leader’s vision.

His Cabinet fanned out across the Washington area to participate in civic projects to serve the needy and clean up their community. The president and his family served lunch at a local soup kitchen as he called for commitment to a “cause greater than ourselves.”

The annual observance of King’s birthday came close on the heels of a new poll suggesting a slide in the public’s optimism about race relations. Just before Obama’s inauguration a year ago, nearly 6 in 10 Americans believed the president would improve race relations, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Now, about 4 in 10 say that has happened, a result most pronounced among African Americans. This time last year, three-quarters of African Americans polled said they expected the Obama administration to make things better. Now, 51% think it has done so.

Speaking to reporters at the White House in the afternoon and in other messages over the holiday weekend, Obama exhorted people not to lose faith.

He invited the senior citizens to the Roosevelt Room as a reminder for young people that many heroes of the civil rights movement are still around to encourage and inspire. “I think sometimes in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday we act as if this history was so long ago,” he said.


There’s still work to be done, Obama said, urging Americans to undertake the challenge on a personal level. “Part of what the civil rights movement was all about was changing people’s hearts and minds and breaking out of old customs and old habits,” he said.

“That’s an important lesson for all of us on this day,” he said, to pursue “the things that we can try to do that might have seemed impossible but we know are worth doing.”

For the senior citizens who met with the president Monday, though, the meaning of the day was about progress already made.

They talked to an African American president in a historic conference room. They toured his Oval Office. They examined the Emancipation Proclamation, on loan to the White House from the Smithsonian in honor of the occasion.

Eleanor M. Banks began working for the federal government in 1945, the first black person to work in the stenography pool for the U.S. Coast Guard. At that time, black women working for the government were housed separately from white women, and the eating facilities were segregated as well. To have a black man as chief executive is an achievement she never expected to see.

“It is the greatest thing for me to see it and to live it,” she said, emerging from the West Wing after her meeting with Obama.