First Lady Michelle Obama made history Thursday when she took her fiery, campaign-style message of civil rights activism directly to the black church nearly four months before the November presidential election.
“Much like they did 50 years ago, or 150 years ago, our laws still shape so many aspects of our lives: Whether folks are paying their fair share of taxes, or not; whether we invest in roads and schools, and the jobs that come with them, or not; whether our sons and our daughters who wear our country’s uniform get the support and benefits they’ve earned, or not,” the First Lady told a crowd of 10,000 AME members at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
“You see, those decisions are made by the folks sitting in Congress and in our White House,” Obama added. “They’re made by the folks in our state legislatures and city halls. And we all know who’s supposed to select those folks, don't we? We know who’s supposed to tell those folks what to do, right? We are. That’s our job. That is our most fundamental right and our most solemn obligation –- to cast our ballots and have our say in the laws that shape our lives.”
In her 27-minute speech that blended spirituality, voting rights and health care, Obama became the first sitting First Lady to deliver a keynote address to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church’s national conference. The AME Church has a membership of more than three million people worldwide with an even broader range of influence. There are approximately 7,500 churches throughout North and South America as well as Europe, Africa and India.
The First Lady’s speech to one of the largest African-American faith groups in the nation came on an historic day as the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 ruling, upheld all parts of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, including the individual mandate that requires all Americans to have health insurance.
Michelle Obama’s address was a distinct departure from her usual childhood obesity speeches and her appearance before the oldest black religious denomination in America had a campaign-type feel as many AME members across the country are already serving as Obama campaign volunteers, knocking on doors, fielding calls and mobilizing a grass-roots movement to return Obama to the White House.
And there was one powerful recurring theme throughout the First Lady’s speech to rally the faithful: Black people have a duty – if not an obligation – to vote.
“But today, how many folks do we know who act like that right doesn’t even matter?” Obama asked. “How many of us have asked someone whether they’re going to vote, and tell us, “No, I voted last time,” or “Is there really an election going on? Really?”, or “Nah, nah, it’s not like my vote’s gonna make a difference.” How many times have we heard that? After so many folks sacrificed so much so that we could make our voices heard, so many of us just can’t be bothered.
“But let’s be very clear, while we’re tuning out and staying home on Election Day, other folks are tuning in,” the First Lady said. “Other folks are taking politics very seriously. And they’re engaged on every level. They’re raising money. They’re making their voices heard –- and their issues known –- from City Hall to Washington, DC. And I know that in the face of all of that money and influence, it can start to feel like ordinary citizens just can’t get a seat at the table. And that can make you feel helpless and hopeless. It can make you feel or think that you’re powerless.”
“But I’m here today because that’s simply not true,” she added. “We are not helpless or hopeless.”
The AME church holds a general conference every four years where delegates from around the world come together to discuss their mission and the Obama campaign is keenly aware of the church’s formidable membership and its potential black voters.
In fact, the black vote will be critical to Obama’s re-election efforts as the campaign is working closely with a range of national black church groups and civil rights organizations to turn out as many black voters as possible on Nov. 6.
Obama campaign aides are hoping to duplicate the same level of enthusiasm for Obama as in the historic 2008 election and AME church members are a critical voting bloc.
“Mrs. Obama’s commitment to family as the Mother-In- Chief is encouraging to women around the world and her leadership in fighting childhood obesity has been embraced by many of our congregations in the United States,” Presiding Prelate Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Host Bishop of the Conference, told reporters.
The First Lady’s address also coincided with a new NBC News-Marist poll that shows President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney running almost neck-and-neck in three key battleground states, with Obama holding a slight advantage in Michigan and North Carolina, and the two candidates tied in New Hampshire.
Although Michelle Obama steered clear of talking specifically about the upcoming presidential election, she left AME members with a clear message that civic engagement and the fight for social justice are important components of their mission.
“Icons like Frederick Douglas and Rosa Parks, leaders like Jim Clyburn, trailblazers like Oliver Brown of Brown v. Board of Education, Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine — they all worshipped at AME churches,” the First Lady said.
“I know that I am here today because of those heroes,” she added. “My husband is in the White House today because of them. Because of those heroes, today my daughters and all our children and grandchildren can grow up dreaming of being doctors and lawyers, CEOs and senators, and yes, maybe even the President of the United States of America.”