A speech by Michelle Obama, as delivered in Orangeburg, South Carolina – Tuesday, November 20, 2007
A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Coretta Scott King. It was an extraordinary moment for me, meeting this graceful and dignified woman. One I’ll never forget. And what I remember most was that she told me not to be afraid because God was with us – Barack and me – and that she would always keep us in her prayers.
And I thought, this is a woman who knows what it means to overcome.
This was a woman who overcame the heat of racism as a little girl when she walked five miles to school on those rural Alabama roads, passing the doors of the whites-only school so much closer to home.
This was a woman who overcame other people’s doubts and ignorance by studying and succeeding and excelling past most of her classmates – black and white – earning a college degree and acceptance to a prestigious graduate school up north.
This was a woman who overcame whatever fears she may have had and became a partner in freedom’s cause.
And as I thought about this remarkable woman, I thought about all the others who had come before her in the long journey for equality in this country – women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. And I thought about those who had carried the torch of justice by her side – women like Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Shirley Chisolm, C. Delores Tucker, and Mary McLeod Bethune.
These were all women who knew what it meant to overcome. Who kept marching even when their feet were sore, and kept organizing even when their backs were aching, and sat down at the front of the bus when they were sick and tired of going to the back. These were all women who cast aside the voices of doubt and fear that said “wait,” “you can’t do that,” “it’s not your turn,” “the timing isn’t right,” “the country just isn’t ready.”
And because they listened to their own voices and cast the cynics aside – because they refused to settle for the world as it is, and insisted on reaching for the world as it should be – this nation marched forward.
And I know that my life is only possible because of their courage and sacrifice all those years ago, that I am standing on their shoulders today, and on the shoulders of so many others whose names never made it into history books but who guided me and lifted me up every step of the way; who taught me to work hard, dream big, and then bring my blessings and energy and knowledge back to my community. I did just what was asked of me. I listened to those voices.
I listened to the pastors and elders in my churches. I listened to my mother who stayed home to raise my brother and me. I listened to my father, who worked hard every day in a blue collar job; a man who sacrificed his dreams to put food on the table and put his children through college and leave a pension to support my mom when he passed away.
I listened to my grandfather, who was from Georgetown, South Carolina. Like my mom and dad, my grandfather never went to college, but he was a proud man, a smart man, and he filled my brother and me with big dreams about the lives we could lead. He taught me that my destiny had not been written before I was born – that my destiny was in my hands.
So these were the voices I was hearing growing up. And they gave me the strength and courage to overcome the doubt and fear I was hearing in other corners of my community. From classmates who thought a black girl with a book was acting white. From teachers who told me not to reach too high because my test scores were too low. And from well-meaning but misguided folks who said, “no, you can’t,” “you’re not smart enough,” and “you’re not ready.” Who said “success isn’t meant for little black girls from the South Side of Chicago.”
And you know what?
When I listened to my own voice and cast the cynics aside, when I forged ahead and overcame the doubts and fears of others about who I was and what I could become, I found that their doubts and fears were misplaced.
Funny thing, the more I achieved, the more I found that I was just as ready, just as qualified, just as capable as those who felt entitled to the seat at the table that I was working so hard for. And I realized that those who had been given the mantle of power in this country didn’t have any magic about them. They were no better, no smarter than me. That gnawing sense of self-doubt that is common within all of us is a lie. It’s just in our heads. Nine times out of ten, we are more ready and more prepared than we could ever know.
My own life is proof of that. Because I am not supposed to be here. According to all the statistics, I was not supposed to go to Princeton and Harvard Law because I didn’t come from the right background. I was not supposed to have a successful career in law and non-profit work.
And I am certainly not supposed to be standing here today with a good chance of being the next First Lady of the United States. That idea – the idea that I could be part of history and potentially help change the way this country is viewed around the world – is still amazing to me.
But I also know that the life I’m living – the life that generations of Americans sacrificed so much of themselves to make possible – is still out of reach for too many women. Too many little black girls. I don’t have to tell you about this. We know the disparities that exist in this state and across this country.We know that as recently as several years ago, the percentage of black women in professional jobs in South Carolina was lower than anyplace else in this country.
And we know that across America, women are paid less than men – 77 cents on the dollar on average – and that pay discrimination is even worse for black women – 67 cents for every dollar a white man makes, a pay gap my husband fought to close in Illinois.
We know that millions of women over the past decades have been dropped from the welfare rolls, and left to fend for themselves without adequate childcare.
We know that too many black women don’t have quality, affordable health care. That we are more likely than white women to die of a whole host of diseases. That we are dying too young, too needlessly. That our babies are dying too.
We know that too many of us don’t have the time or the means to go see a doctor and by the time we do go, illnesses that should be preventable and curable have become death sentences.And we are learning that the dream of giving our children a better life is slipping further out of reach. A report in yesterday’s USA Today showed that 45% of children from black middle class families are ending up “near poor,” compared to 16% percent for children from white middle class families.
But we know these things. We have seen these declines in our families and communities. Declines that didn’t just begin when Bush took office; a steady deterioration. And if my husband were here, he’d tell you that inequality isn’t a burden we have to accept, but a challenge to overcome.
And that’s why he’s running for President. He knows that we need a fundamental shift in our approach to politics. He’s running to be the President who makes universal health care a reality by the end of his first term, and who creates a plan that finally tackles these persistent health care disparities.
To be the President who fixes up the Corridors of Shame all across this country and gives our teachers the pay and support they need, and our kids the clean, safe schools they deserve. And he is running to be the President who finally lifts up the poor and forgotten in all corners of this country.
But if he were here, he’d also say that government alone is not the answer. That sound policies and sensible plans are not enough. He’d say that the greatest challenge we face in this country is not a deficit of resources – for we are one of the richest nations on Earth; nor is it a deficit of policies, because we have some of the world’s most brilliant minds thinking about these issues. Instead, he’d say, it’s that we are suffering from a deficit of empathy for one another.
Barack believes in the greatness of America. He’s seen it in his own life’s journey. But he also knows that what’s holding us back is that our leaders have lost touch with the ideals that make this country great. Ideals like equality. Justice. Freedom from want and despair.
And he believes that until we restore a sense of common destiny and shared purpose; until we understand that we are only as strong as the weakest among us; that there is more that binds us together than drives us apart; until we see ourselves in one another – until we truly care for all children; not just our own then we will continue to struggle with the problems that plague us.That is why my husband, Barack Obama, is the person America needs in the White House right now.
And it is not because of the color of his skin, it is because of the quality and consistency of his character. This is a man who has lived his entire life guided by the notion that we are one another’s brother’s and sister’s keepers. Always guided by principle and not power.
This is a man who walked away from a career on Wall Street more than two decades ago to become a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, setting up after-school programs, and bringing jobs to the jobless. Who turned down a lucrative career as a corporate lawyer to organize 150,000 new voters, mostly black, in one of Chicago’s biggest voter registration drives – and who, by the way, has been fighting for our voting rights ever since.
Imagine! A president of the United States who actually has experience working on the ground with real people! This is a man who was the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, who worked as a civil rights attorney, taught constitutional law and has a deep knowledge and respect for the Constitution. Imagine that! A president who actually understands and respects the Constitution; we could use somebody like that in the White House after this administration.
This is a man who has served in public office for more than a decade and led fights to expand health care to 150,000 children and parents, to reform a broken death penalty system that had sent 13 innocent men to death row, and to help eliminate racial profiling. These weren’t just causes you heard Barack talk about at Sunday church services around Election Day; these have been the causes of his life. Imagine a president who brings that kind of experience to the White House.
Barack is a man who knows that the only reason he’s in this race is because someone, somewhere stood up when it was risky, stood up when it was hard. And he’s running for President to stand up for your dreams and your future just like earlier generations stood up for his.
Now, I know folks talk in the barber shops and beauty salons, and I’ve heard some folks say, “That Barack, he seems like a nice guy, but I’m not sure America’s ready for a black President.” Well, all I can say is we’ve heard those voices before. Voices that say, “maybe we should wait,” and “no, you can’t do it.” “You’re not ready” – “you’re not experienced.” Voices that focus on what might go wrong; rather than what’s possible. And I understand it. I know where it comes from, this sense of doubt and fear about what the future holds. That veil of impossibility that keeps us down and keeps our children down – keeps us waiting and hoping for a turn that may never come.
It’s the bitter legacy of racism and discrimination and oppression in this country. A legacy that hurts us all.
And I want to talk not just about fear but about love. Because I know it’s also about love. I know people care about Barack and our family. I know people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment; failure. I know people are proud of us. I know that people understand that Barack is special. You don’t see this kind of man often.
I equate it to that aunt or that grandmother that bought all that new furniture – spent her life savings on it and then what does she do? She puts plastic on it to protect it. That plastic gets yellow and scratches up your leg and it’s hot and sticky. But see grandma is just trying to protect that furniture – the problem is – it’s that she doesn’t get the full enjoyment – the benefit from the furniture because she’s trying to protect it. I think folks just want to protect us from the possibility of being let down – not by us – but by the world as it is. A world – they fear – is not ready for a decent man like Barack. Sometimes it seems better not to try at all than to try and fail.
We have to remember that these complicated emotions are what folks who marched in the Civil Rights Movement had to overcome all those decades ago. It’s what so many of us have struggled to overcome in our own lives. And it’s what we’re going to have to overcome as a community if we want to lift ourselves up.
We’re going to have to dig deep into our souls, confront our own self-doubt, and recognize that our destiny is in our hands – that our future is what we make of it. So let’s build the future we all know is possible. Let’s prove to our children that they really can reach for their dreams. Let’s show them that America is ready for Barack Obama. Right now.
We never would have entered this race if we weren’t confident America was ready, if we weren’t confident Barack was going to win. And the way he’s going to win is by building a coalition of Americans of every race, religion and political party. It’s what he did in his Senate race, when he won 70% of the vote in Illinois. Everyone voted for Barack – blacks, whites, women, young, old, farmers, businessmen, you name it. And he won because he spoke directly to people’s sense of decency. Their desire to reach for something better, something real and true. And that’s how he will win this campaign by bringing Independents and even Republicans to the table like no other Democrat has.
There’s a reason this race is tied-up in Iowa. There’s a reason Barack’s building support in New Hampshire. And it’s not because there are a whole lot of black folks there. It’s because it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white if your child is in a failing school. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white if you don’t have health care. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white if you’re concerned about how our standing in the world has fallen. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white if you believe we need fundamental change in this country.
So I am confident that the more people learn about where Barack’s been, and what he stands for, the more they’ll embrace the possibilities of his presidency, the more they’ll let themselves dream of an America led by President Obama.
And I want you to dream of that day – the day Barack Obama is sworn in as President. Imagine our family on that inaugural platform. America will look at itself differently. The world will look at America differently.
Dream of a President who was raised like Barack was by a single mom who had to work and go to school and raise her kids and accept food stamps once in a while. Imagine a President who knows what that’s like.
Dream of a President who could walk into any neighborhoods and schools and give the young men and women there someone to look up to. Who could tell them how he got into trouble when he was in high school. How he made mistakes, but how he was able to overcome.
Dream of that day. And then reach for that dream. Because it’s within our grasp. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s make Barack Obama the next President of the United States.Barack is ready. He’s sat at the table with the best of the best. He’s figured that out. The question is, Are we ready?
Are we ready to believe in the power of our own voices?
Are we ready to cast aside our fear and cynicism?
Are we ready to work our hearts out to make our dream a reality?
Are we ready to overcome?
If we are truly ready, then now is the time. This one’s on us. We cannot afford to wait. We cannot afford to doubt. We cannot afford to make excuses. We have this moment of opportunity. And we need to seize it.
Ask yourselves: of all the candidates, who will fight to lift black men up so we don’t have to keep locking them up; who will confront the racial profiling and Jena justice that continues to afflict this nation; the voter disenfranchisement that rears its ugly head every few years; and the redlining that persists in our communities, keeping prosperity out and hopelessness in. Who will use the bully pulpit of the presidency to call on black men to accept their responsibility and raise their children; who will refuse to tolerate Corridors of Shame in this country – of all countries? The answer is clear – Barack Obama. Not because of the color of his skin. Not because of what he’s said. But because of what he has done. How he has lived his life. Fighting for justice for all Americans; from all walks of life.
So I’m asking you to believe in Barack. But most of all, I’m asking you to believe in yourselves. I’m asking you to stop settling for the world as it is, and to help us make the world as it should be. And if you’re willing to do that – if you’re willing to work with us and pray with us and be courageous – if you’re willing to heed Coretta Scott King’s words and not be afraid of the future, but have faith in God’s grace – then I truly believe that together, there’s no challenge we can’t overcome.
Michelle Obama, The Next First Lady of the United States