Black leaders hail focus on civil rights, poverty and climate change

African-American leaders praised President Obama's second inaugural address for its bold, inclusive language about poverty, climate change and civil rights. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama, America's first black president, was inaugurated for a second term in an historic ceremony Monday. The occasion coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, adding to its meaning, particularly for black leaders. 

"I still feel a great sense of pride," said former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Ill.), who noted that Obama took his oath with one hand on King's bible. 

Obama begins his second term with overwhelming support from the black community. Ninety-one percent of African-Americans surveyed approved of his job performance in a Gallup poll released last week. 

But black leaders have also expressed disappointment in Obama, saying he should be tougher on Republicans and problems like urban poverty. 

These feelings were quieted Monday, as many leaders were visibly affected by Obama's speech. 

"I listened intently," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "He did not shy away from climate change, from poverty this time. He was much more fulsome this time in speaking to the issues that animated him to run for office. Four years ago, [the speech] was vaguer in its themes."

In his address, Obama alluded to the civil-rights movement with references to marches in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech on the National Mall in 1963.

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth," Obama said. 

He referenced poverty by saying the nation's "journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm."

And Obama promised to "respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson praised Obama's tone as "spiritual and solemn." And Rev. Al Sharpton said the speech marked a new achievement for Obama as an orator, calling it "one of the best that I've heard him do." 

"I think he's grown as a speaker," Sharpton said of Obama. "He seemed totally comfortable with himself." 

The prominent civil-rights activist highlighted Obama's "inspiring" description of an incomplete journey on climate change, gay rights and voting rights. 

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) suggested the speech was a milestone for those issues. 

"What struck me most was how easy it is to talk about some subjects that were not so easy to talk about before," she said. "We have moved quite far in a relatively short period of time." 

Republicans did not receive Monday's speech with warmth. After the ceremony ended, GOP lawmakers quickly lamented that Obama had failed to extend them an olive branch. 

"It did seem that he wasn't doing the kind of outreach that he needs to do if he wants to get things accomplished in a second term," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). 

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), Congress's only black Republican, echoed these comments, and suggested the speech had been too vague. 

"Having a grand vision for America is incredibly important. Figuring out those parts that we should get started on is more important," Scott said. "We'll just have to work through it as time goes on." 

— Alexandra Jaffe and Erik Wasson contributed.

—This post was changed Tuesday morning to reflect that Cleaver no longer leads the Congressional Black Caucus.