COMMENTARY: 50 Years in the Making: Obama Honors King During Historic Commemoration

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As I listened to Obama’s speech Wednesday, I was reminded of how Obama began his second term in office: by touting a plan to renovate some of the nation’s most devastated black neighborhoods — part of a broad strategy to help improve the quality of life for many black Americans – and traveling to the South Side of Chicago to speak to 16 black male students who are growing up poor, troubled, and some without fathers in their lives.

“This is very personal for him because he didn’t have a father,” Jarrett told me earlier this year during a black journalists’ session at the White House.  “He was raised by a single mom so he knows the challenges. I think he takes his role as a mentor very seriously and he leads by example. He goes home for dinner every night; he is a present and involved father. The president might say that at some point in his childhood he may have been at risk too so hopefully they will identify with him.”

And in July, Obama told his truth about being black and male in America, a powerful 19-minute testimony that black people have been waiting to hear and white people needed to know. In a deeply personal reflection about racial polarization, Obama used his White House bully pulpit to steadfastly align himself with black men in America and share their collective pain of racial discrimination and cultural isolation.

“There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars,” Obama said. “That happens to me — at least before I was a senator.  There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.  That happens often.”

I believe Obama has evolved significantly with respect to race during the past four years in the White House – at least publicly. His willingness to take an unwavering stand in solidarity with black men; embracing Sharpton on occasion at the White House; talking more openly about urban gun violence; making sure more black students visit the White House; these are examples of a president who is growing more comfortable with discussing diversity – and his blackness — during his second term in office.

Since Obama took office in 2009, he has welcomed many icons of the Civil Rights Movement to the White House, including members of the Tuskegee Airmen, Freedom Riders, Negro League Baseball players – including Willie Mays, who Obama hosted aboard Air Force One, and the president greeted the late Dorothy Height, a civil rights legend and head of The National Council of Negro Women, at the White House.

“Children today are growing up thinking it’s perfectly normal to have a president who is African American,” Jarrett told me. “Eight years of having a black president is going to be a good chunk of their childhood. And that’s good for the country.”

It took Obama 50 years to reach the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as President of the United States to commemorate King, but it only took 29 minutes on Wednesday for Obama to remind Americans that he remains committed to King’s timeless call for community activism, racial equality, and grass-roots social change.

(Photo: Courtesy of Shevry Lassiter)

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