Cedric Granberry was upset when President Barack Obama sent the vice president to address the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s convention a few years ago, during the 2012 presidential campaign. So on Tuesday, when Obama had a chance to make it up to the organization, Granberry was excited to know that the president would be there and that he would emphasize a need for criminal justice reform in the U.S.
“It’s what impacts our community the most,” said Granberry, a 39-year-old African American president of the Tyler, Texas, branch of the NAACP, located about 100 miles east of Dallas. “He has paid attention to the fact that there is a problem–the acknowledgement from a sitting president is worth its weight in gold,” he said.
Obama’s address, delivered to approximately 4,000 people in the Philadelphia Convention Center, came as he was trying to solidify his legacy as both the first Black U.S. president and a Democratic leader carrying the hopes of liberals and progressives for social change. While the president has not found allies in Washington’s Republican establishment on gun control, immigration reform and taxing the rich to bring middle-class relief, his message here was clear: Criminal justice reforms that would help to reverse the impact of a decades-long war on drugs was crucial for the country’s communities of color.
The uneven treatment of Black and Latino men by the criminal justice system “did not happen by accident,” Obama said in his remarks Tuesday. “We can’t be satisfied and are not satisfied until the opportunity gap is closed for everybody in America.”
With the nation spending $80 billion annually to keep people imprisoned – enough to eliminate tuition at public colleges or double the salaries of public school teachers – investing in early childhood education, changing the way offenders are sentenced and increasing rehabilitative programs in prison are a multipronged way of lessening the societal toll of incarceration, Obama said.
“We’ve locked up nonviolent drug offenders more than ever before, for longer than ever before,” the president said. “Our criminal justice system isn’t as smart, isn’t as safe, and isn’t as fair as it should be. We need to do something about it.”
Tuesday was the first time that the president had a chance to address a largely Black audience since late last month when he delivered the eulogy at state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral. A 21-year-old White man who told authorities he targeted a historically Black church to start a race war killed Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, along with eight members of his congregation.
Obama has delivered several well-received speeches on civil rights and race relations since catapulting to national prominence as a state senator from Illinois more than a decade ago. Recently, it was Obama’s seemingly impromptu rendition of ‘Amazing Grace,’ the standard Christian hymn for tragic occasions, following the aforementioned rousing eulogy delivered to AME church leaders and hundreds of Pinckney mourners, which drew headlines.
That hymn would have played well with the convention crowd at the NAACP, an organization whose 106-year history is rooted in the traditions of the Black church. An organist and pianist played reverent overtures, as speakers roused the crowd with messages of self-empowerment before the president’s remarks. But before he began speaking, Obama let attendees down easy. “I am not singing today,” he said to laughs.
On Monday, Obama signed an order that would free or reduce the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, a prelude of sorts for his scheduled visit later this week to a federal prison that would make him the first sitting president to do so. The clemency was part of a broader reform agenda that has been in the works for years and aims to reduce over sentencing for nonviolent offenses in the U.S.
Civil rights leaders said the commutations of those prison sentences were a step in the right direction. However, that step was minuscule compared to the toll of a 45-year war on drugs that has cost $1 trillion and left 65 million people with criminal records, said Glenn Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization seeking an end to mass incarceration policies.
Obama said signs that bipartisan members of Congress may take up criminal justice reform this year were encouraging him. “What has changed in recent years is the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth—partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, and partly because the statistics cannot be ignored,” he said in reference to deaths of Black men at the hands of police officers that have sparked nationwide protests in the last year.
“Justice is not to the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity,” Obama added. “Justice is young people know their lives matter, not because they read it in a hashtag.”