President Obama presented a very “pro-women” message during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation(CBCF)’s Phoenix Awards Dinner on Sept. 19. He stressed the importance of female strength, education and health, while also advocating for more positive opportunities for the youth.
“I’m focusing on women tonight because I want them to know how much we appreciate them, how much we admire them, how much we love them,” Obama said during the event that capped the 45th Annual Legislative Conference. “Because all of us are beneficiaries of a long line of strong Black women who helped carry this country forward. Their work to expand civil rights opened the doors of opportunity, not just for African Americans but for all women, for all of us – Black and White, Latino and Asian, LGBT and straight, for our first Americans and our newest Americans. And their contributions in every field – as scientists and entrepreneurs, educators, explorers – all made us stronger.”
The president spoke of holding civil rights leader Amelia Boynton Robinson’s hand when they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the seminal march on March 7, 1965, when Alabama State troopers attacked Blacks who were protesting for their right to vote.
“Like every parent, I can’t help to see the world increasingly through my daughters’ eyes,” Obama said. “And on that day, when we were celebrating that incredible march in Selma, I had Ms. Amelia’s hand in one of my hands, but Michelle had Sasha’s hand, and my mother-in-law had Malia’s hand, and it was a chain across generations. … And that tells me that if we follow their example, we’re going to cross more bridges in the future. If we keep moving forward, hand in hand, God willing, my daughters’ children will be able to cross that bridge in an America that’s more free, and more just, and more prosperous than the one that we inherited.”
Robinson was posthumously presented one of the five Phoenix awards along with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, who was instrumental in the release of the Wilmington Ten; Fred Gray, civil rights attorney for Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; civil right’s activist Juanita Abernathy, who helped organize and lead the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama (1965-1966) and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. According to a press release from the CBCF, the fraternity received the award for its diligence in cementing Dr. King’s legacy with a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
In addition to awarding the honorees, tributes were also given for Julian Bond and Congressman Louis Stokes. Both men died early this year, Aug. 15 and Aug. 18, respectively.
The honorees “remind us of the courage and sacrifices, the work that they’ve done – and not just at the national level, but in local communities all across the country,” Obama said. “We couldn’t be prouder of them. The heroes of the Civil Rights Movement whom we lost last month remind us of the work that remains to be done.”
Obama also reflected on the need for criminal justice reform. “There is no contradiction between us caring about our law enforcement officers and also making sure that our laws are applied fairly,” he said. “We need to make sure the laws are applied evenly. This is not a new problem. It’s just that in recent months, in recent years, suddenly folks have videos and body cameras, and social media, and so it’s opened our eyes to these incidents. … But we can’t avoid these tough conversations altogether. That’s not going to help our police officers, the vast majority who do the right thing every day, by just pretending that these things aren’t happening. That’s not going to help build trust between them and the communities in which they serve.”
The dinner also put a spotlight on youth development and progression, highlighting the CBCF’s internships and fellowship programs on Capitol Hill, the need for more entrepreneurship opportunities, and a greater push for the Black community to be involved in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
Obama said he would work with Congress and many in the CBC to try to make progress on legislation that addresses unjust sentencing laws and encourages prevention to influence youth to take different paths while also helping ex-offenders.
Special guests attending the dinner included presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), Rev. Al Sharpton, Judge Greg Mathis and several other Congress members. Actors Larenz Tate and Nia Long emceed the event. Denise Ward, a senior at Boston University, sang the national anthem.