Anne Penketh: Keep dream alive, urges Obama

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America's first black President has appealed to his followers to keep alive the dream that put him in the White House three years ago.

For Barack Obama, the dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial on the banks of Washington's Tidal Basin yesterday was an opportunity to galvanise the core community that came out massively to vote for him in the 2008 election.

Looking out across a sea of white baseball caps handed out to the audience, the Rev Al Sharpton evoked the faith "that brought us from the back of the bus to the White House".

But the President's support has been eroding because of the economic downturn, with 58 per cent of African Americans backing him compared with 83 per cent five months ago. Unemployment has surged to 16.4 per cent among African Americans, the highest in 27 years, compared with 8 per cent for whites. African Americans have also been particularly hard hit by foreclosures, because of their investments in subprime mortgages during the housing bubble.

As one speaker at the event reminded Obama, the "cradle to prison pipeline" remains a problem for black Americans, with one out of every 10 black youths ending up in jail. And 16.4 million black children live in poverty.

Obama, a mixed race American, has rarely invoked race since becoming President, and still sees himself as a unifying force. Even in his address yesterday to a predominantly black audience, he highlighted King's "hopeful vision" that changed not only laws but "hearts and minds as well".

The speakers' platform was positioned behind the giant King granite memorial so that the celebrants, including Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, as well as the President, were filmed with the statue's inscription "a Stone of Hope" clearly visible.

Subtly comparing his struggle to that of the assassinated civil rights leader, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate like himself, Obama said: "Our work is not done." His main theme was to warn his supporters that change will take time. "Change has never been quick, or without controversy."

It was left to others to make a more overt comparison of the two black leaders. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar from Colorado, looking incongruous in a cowboy hat, ended his remarks by referring to King's "I had a dream" speech, saying that "President Barack Obama is the personification of that American dream".

Obama is well aware that the promises of his campaign slogan "change you can believe in" have failed to materialise almost three years after his inauguration. But among the audience of several tens of thousands, African Americans were giving him the benefit of the doubt and fiercely defended him. "He's doing the best he can in the economic environment," said Darren Wright, a postgraduate student from Atlanta, Georgia.

Oliver Frazier, a "semi-retired" house building contractor from Augusta, Georgia , hit by the economic crisis, criticised Democratic Party members for "not standing strong with the President". Frazier, 66, who remembers marching with King in 1959 in Savannah, added: "There's a race issue underneath." Others mentioned Washington's "divisive politics" which have prevented the President from moving forward with his jobs agenda.

After Franklin had sung and the President delivered his 20-minute address, Obama linked arms with Michelle and their party on the platform as We Shall Overcome was sung.

Then Obama was back on the campaign trail. Next stop Virginia and North Carolina on a bus tour to convince these states too, which switched from Republican to Democrat in 2008, not to desert him in 2012.

- NZ Herald

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