WASHINGTON (AP) — Days after mass shootings in both of his hometowns, President Barack Obama urged his most ardent supporters Saturday “to get back up and go back at it” and help push stalled legislation out of Congress so dangerous people won’t get their hands on guns.
“We can’t rest until all of our children can go to school or walk down the street free from the fear that they will be struck down by a stray bullet,” Obama said in a keynote speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner.
Legislation calling for expanded background checks failed to clear the Senate earlier this year despite a strong push by Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, people whose loved ones had been killed by gunfire and other gun-control advocates.
The bill was part of a package of measures Obama promised to put the full weight of his office behind after 20 first-graders and six educators were killed last December in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Republicans and some Democrats voted against the measure.
Obama used the occasion of his keynote speech to make his first public comments about this week’s pair of shootings.
Just two days ago in his other hometown of Chicago, 13 people out watching a game of pickup basketball at a neighborhood park were wounded by gunfire, including a 3-year-old boy.
This past Monday in Washington, 12 people were slain by a gunman who later was killed by police. Obama was preparing to speak Sunday evening at a memorial service in Washington for victims of that shooting.
“Tomorrow night I’ll be meeting in mourning with families in this city who now know the same unspeakable grief of families in Newtown and Aurora and Tucson and Chicago and New Orleans and all across the country, people whose loved ones were torn from them without headlines sometimes or public outcry,” Obama said.
“But it’s happening every single day,” he said. “We fought a good fight earlier this year, but we came up short and that means we’ve got to get back up and go back at it because as long as there are those who fight to make it as easy as possible for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun, then we’ve got to work as hard as possible for the sake of our children. We’ve got to be ones who are willing to do more work to make it harder.”
The White House said after Monday’s shooting that Obama is using his executive authority to tighten access to guns and remains committed to strengthening gun laws, including requiring background checks for sales online and at gun shows.
The dinner celebrated the “Spirit of 1963,” including the civil rights movement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice led 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial by Martin Luther King Jr. The annual event also celebrated the advances the movement brought about for black Americans, including voting rights, desegregation and Obama’s election in 2008 as America’s first black president.
Without mentioning his place in history, Obama acknowledged progress made since 1963 but said there was more to be done. He spoke of work needed to reduce an unemployment rate among blacks that is twice that of whites, increase the minimum wage as he proposed earlier this year and provide health care and education for all.
He said upward mobility has slipped out of reach for too many Americans, including in largely black communities.
Obama said the U.S. must become a place where hard work buys a ticket into the middle class. He suggested continuing to follow the example of the civil rights heroes of the past and not letting up until that dream also becomes a reality.
“We must make this country a place where anyone who works hard can earn their way into the middle class,” Obama told hundreds of people packed into a cavernous ballroom in Washington’s convention center. “And until we do, we can’t let up and we can’t rest.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, CBC! (Applause.) Thank you so much, everybody. Please, have a seat, have a seat. Michelle and I are happy to be here with such a good-looking crowd. Everybody’s cleaning up nice. (Laughter.)
Thank you to Chaka Fattah for not just the great introduction, but more importantly, your leadership, especially on the issues of brain research that have the potential to change so many lives. I want to thank Shuanise Washington and everybody at the CBC Foundation for doing so much to help all our young people achieve their God-given potential. (Applause.)
I see so many friends here tonight. And obviously, these last several weeks have been momentous in a lot of ways. Many of you I had the opportunity to see both hosting at the White House but then at the actual anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. And it was a little rainy that day, we didn’t have a nice roof over our heads, but that wasn’t enough to keep all of you away. It wasn’t enough to keep me away. It wasn’t enough to keep folks from all across the country from coming out to pay tribute to not only Dr. King, not only John Lewis, not only the well-known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but to all the ordinary Americans who made it possible for so many of us to stand here today. (Applause.)
And as I looked out on that crowd, listening to Christine King Farris, or Reverend Lowery, and Congressman Lewis, it was impossible not to appreciate just how much progress we’ve made. It was impossible not to think of all the hearts that have been opened, all the laws that have been changed, all thanks to the quiet heroes who refused to give up or give in.
And as I said on that day, to dismiss the magnitude of that progress, to somehow suggest that little has changed, dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of all those who paid the price to march in those years. (Applause.) But what I also said — and I think there wasn’t a speaker there that day or on Saturday in the other commemoration of the March who didn’t make this point — we would also dishonor those heroes to suggest that the work of this nation is somehow complete. (Applause.) And that’s something that the CBC has always understood.
It wasn’t until 1969 — six years after the March on Washington — that African Americans in Congress formed a caucus. And by then, the Civil Rights Act had been passed. The Voting Rights Act had been signed. The Civil Rights Movement had been successful in many ways.
But the men and women who founded this caucus recognized what Dr. King understood: That equality is not just an abstraction, it’s not just a formality. It has to go hand in hand with economic opportunity; that in order to address the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, we’ve got to make it easier for every American to earn their piece of the American Dream. (Applause.)
So fast forward to today, 50 years later. We all understand we have to be vigilant against any attempt to roll back our hard-won civil rights –- whether that means tearing down barriers put up by those who seek to restrict the right to vote, or making sure our criminal justice system works equally well for everybody, not just for some. (Applause.)
But at a time when black unemployment remains twice as high as white unemployment, at a time when working Americans of all races have seen their incomes and wages stagnate even as corporate profits and the incomes of folks at the very top are soaring, we’ve got to pick up the torch of economic justice. We have to make this a country where anybody who works hard can earn their way into the middle class. And until we do, we will not let up and we will not rest, no matter how much resistance we get. We will keep on pressing forward because it’s good for America. It’s the right thing to do. (Applause.)
We can’t rest until every American knows the security of quality, affordable health care. (Applause.) In just over a week, thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the leadership shown by the CBC and others in Congress — so many of you fought to pass this law — thanks to your efforts, 6 in 10 uninsured Americans will finally be able to get covered for less than $100 a month. Everybody is going to be able to get coverage; 6 in 10 will be able to get coverage for less than 100 bucks a month. (Applause.) And by the way, the only reason it’s 6 in 10 is because we’ve got some governors who — (laughter) — haven’t seen the light yet. If every governor chose to join this project rather than to fight it just to score some political points, that number would be nearly eight in 10. (Applause.)
So just think about that. Knowing you can offer your family the security of health care –- that’s priceless. And now you can do it for less than your cell phone bill. That’s what change looks like. (Applause.)
We won’t rest until every American has access to a good education. And we’ve got to make sure every child gets the best start in life. We want to give every four year old in America access to quality preschool. There’s no better investment. We should be making it right now. We can afford it. It’s the right vision. It’s the right time. (Applause.)
We should make college more affordable for every family. There’s no better ticket to the middle class in this country. (Applause.) And we’ve already made college –- including HBCUs -– more affordable for millions of students and their families through tax credits and grants and student loans that are going further than ever before. But we’ve got more to do. And so I’ve been talking to colleges, telling them they need to do their part by bringing costs down. Because in a 21st century economy, a higher education is not a luxury, it is an economic imperative, and everybody should be able to afford it, not just a few. (Applause.)
We can’t rest until we offer new ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to climb them. When you think about America, when you think about the ideal of this country, a big part of it is the idea of upward mobility, the idea that if you work hard you can get ahead. Well, over the last 30 years, upward mobility in this country has slipped out of reach for too many people. And that’s especially true in communities with large African-American populations.
So we’ve got to do more to rebuild neighborhoods, help some of the hardest-hit towns in America get back on their feet. We’ve got to raise the minimum wage. Nobody who works full-time in the wealthiest nation on Earth should have to raise their children in poverty. (Applause.) Those are fights we need to win.
And finally, we can’t rest until all of our children can go to school or walk down the street free from the fear that they will be struck down by a stray bullet. (Applause.) Just two days ago, in my hometown of Chicago, 13 people were shot during a pickup basketball game, including a 3-year-old girl. Tomorrow night I’ll be meeting and mourning with families in this city who now know the same unspeakable grief of families in Newtown, and Aurora, and Tucson, and Chicago, and New Orleans, and all across the country — people whose loved ones were torn from them without headlines sometimes, or public outcry. But it’s happening every single day.
We fought a good fight earlier this year, but we came up short. And that means we’ve got to get back up and go back at it. Because as long as there are those who fight to make it as easy as possible for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun, then we’ve got to work as hard as possible for the sake of our children. We’ve got to be ones who are willing to do more work to make it harder. (Applause.)
These are the tasks before us. These are the challenges we face. It’s a tall order, all of it. I know the odds sometimes seem long. I was taking photos with the CBC folks — every one of them came up, said, oh, you hang in there — (laughter) — you hang in there, man. And I said, don’t worry about me. (Laughter.) I am still fired up, because I still see the work that needs to be done. (Applause.) The work didn’t go away.
And part of the reason that I don’t get tired is because I’ve seen people who are in this audience and what you’ve done, the odds that you’ve overcome. I know sometimes the climb seems steep at any given moment. Sometimes it seems like the pettiness of our politics just is making things worse and worse.
You look at it right now — the other day, House Republicans voted to cut $40 billion in nutritional aid for struggling families at the same time as some of the same folks who took that vote are receiving subsidies themselves. So farm subsidies for folks at the top are okay; help feeding your child is somehow not.
I know the CBC, led by outstanding Chairwoman Marcia Fudge
– (applause) — fought hard to protect those programs that keep so many children from going hungry. And now we’re seeing an extreme faction of these folks convincing their leadership to threaten to shut down the government if we don’t shut down the Affordable Care Act. Some of them are actually willing to see the United States default on its obligations and plunge this country back into a painful recession if they can’t deny the basic security of health care to millions of Americans.
Now, I think — this is an interesting thing to ponder, that your top agenda is making sure 20 million people don’t have health insurance. And you’d be willing to shut down the government and potentially default for the first time in United States history because it bothers you so much that we’re actually going to make sure that everybody has affordable health care.
Let me say as clearly as I can: It is not going to happen. We have come too far. (Applause.) We’ve overcome far darker threats than those. We will not negotiate over whether or not America should keep its word and meet its obligations. We’re not going to allow anyone to inflict economic pain on millions of our own people just to make an ideological point. And those folks are going to get some health care in this country — we’ve been waiting 50 years for it. (Applause.)
It’s time for these folks to stop governing by crisis and start focusing on what really matters: Creating new jobs, growing our economy, expanding opportunity for ourselves, looking after our children, doing something about the violence out there. As we’ve got all of these battles we have to face, we’ve got to remember what brought us here in the first place.
And as I was preparing my speech for the anniversary last month, I was doing some research, reading some stories about people who had come to the March 50 years ago, and I came across the story of a young man named Robert Avery. And Robert was 15 years old in 1963, so he and two friends decided to hitchhike from Gadsden, Alabama to the March on Washington. And together, they traveled through some of the most segregated counties in America, sleeping in bus terminals, eating from vending machines — sometimes not eating. Sometimes they walked. Sometimes passersby, black and white, offered them rides, worried that they might not make it on their own.
Seven hundred miles later, the boys from Gadsden reached their destination. They marched with Dr. King. And it left a mark on them. And afterwards, Robert went back home to Alabama, and he’s now spent the last three decades on the Gadsden city council. And Robert Avery is here tonight. (Applause.)
And in some ways, Robert’s story is duplicated all across this room. Dr. King talked about how we’re inextricably linked. Robert Kennedy talked about how if you toss a pebble in a pond, the ripples emanate from that center. And the same is true in our own lives — how those ripples of hope, we don’t know sometimes how they’re going to have an impact on folks later, but all those tiny ripples build up and end up changing the world.
So when I think about Robert Avery in the city council — and I’m sure he’s got his struggles and frustrations just like a president of the United States has struggles and frustrations sometimes — but he’s still coming to work every day. He’s still working to bring about change every single day, just like our Attorney General comes to work every single day. (Applause.) Just like John Lewis every single day gets up. It doesn’t matter whether he’s in the majority or the minority — he’s going to speak the truth. He’s going to tell everybody what he believes.
And those stories should remind us what brought us here, why did we seek a life of public service, why did we get involved. It wasn’t just to come to a gala. (Laughter.) I mean, it’s nice, everybody looks nice. (Laughter.) But it wasn’t to cash in after service. We may not have hitchhiked across the country, but everybody, at some point, we felt that same tug, that same voice in our heads telling us, stand up, speak out, try to make a difference, remember what you know to be true, what you know to be just, what you know to be fair, and be willing to fight for it, and don’t be timid about it. (Applause.) And maybe sometimes it’s not going to work out right away, but if you stay at it again and again and again and you do not waver, eventually we make a difference. That’s important.
Because while all our challenges are different from the ones faced by previous generations, we’re going to need the same courage of a Robert Avery, or a Bayard Rustin, or a Joyce Ladner — all those marchers from 50 years ago — the same desire to get involved, the same courage to make our voices heard, to stand up for — whether it’s quality health care or good education or our children’s safety or equal opportunity.
We’re going to have to keep marching. And I’m proud that I’ll be, at least for the next three and a half years here in Washington and then a whole lot of years after that, I’m going to be marching with you.
God bless you, everybody. Thank you. God bless America.