First Lady Galvanizes Crowd at Phoenix Awards Dinner

James Wright | 9/27/2012, 12:09 p.m.

Appearance Caps CBC Conference

The wife of the president of the United States, during an historic occasion, urged guests at an elite and extremely chic dinner to focus their efforts on re-electing her husband and to get involved in the political process.

First Lady Michelle Obama told thousands of guests and honorees at the Phoenix Awards Dinner of the 42nd Annual Legislative Conference on Sept. 22 that even though legal racial segregation has ended, "our journey is far from over."

"Too many of us choose not to participate in politics," Obama, 50, said to the audience at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest. "Let me say that other folks are participating and they are raising money and getting organized."

Obama is the first presidential spouse to keynote the Phoenix Dinner. She is also a former Congressional Black Caucus spouse, having served in that capacity as the wife of Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat who collaborated with other members of the chamber from 2005-2009, before being elected the 44th president of the United States.

Obama used the examples of Ronald Dellums and Patricia Schroeder in the 1970s as freshman U.S. representatives as models of persistence in the face of adversity.

"When Dellums and Schroeder were elected to Congress, they were assigned to be on the House Armed Services Committee," she said. "The chairman of the committee did not like that so he assigned one chair for both of them and they had to rotate using that seat."

Obama said that eventually the chairman relented and treated them as full members of the committee. Dellums eventually became the first black chairman of the powerful committee.

She also cited the persistence of Louis Stokes, the first black congressman from Cleveland who fought in segregated conditions in World War II and rose to prominence in national politics.

Obama said that it is up to blacks to work hard to change the political system in their favor.

"We must show up to vote every year, every election," she said. "It must be all of us. It is our birthright."

She said that "in every election, every voice must be heard" and "this is the march of our time."

"This requires constant and sustained hard work," she said. "When we get tired, think of Congressman Dellums and Congressman Stokes."

She said that a particular photo in the White House has touched her heart.

"Every few months the White House photographers rotate photos [in the Oval Office] but one that stays is the one where Barack bends over so that a black boy can touch his hair," she said. "When the boy touches my husband's hair, the boy says 'yes, it does feel the same.' We now have young people growing up and taking for granted that an African American can be president."

Obama said that political activism must be done for the sake of young people.

"We must fulfill the promise of democracy for all of our children," she said.

Sharon Jefferson of Milwaukee described Obama's speech as being "awesome and phenomenal."

"She definitely put it in perspective what we need to do for the elections," said Jefferson, 57. "It is good advice for the black community."

Cynthia Anderson of Northwest said that Obama's speech was "motivational and right on the spot."

"We need to rethink this election and rally people to vote," said Anderson, 46.

A number of people received honors including U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown [D-Fla.] and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, who both received the Harold Washington Phoenix Award and famed film director George Lucas and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, received the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair Phoenix Award. Elsie Scott, the outgoing president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Northwest, received a plaque and words of praise from various speakers.

Albert Black, who runs a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children in Austin, said that he enjoyed the dinner and the legislative conference in general.

"We need to take what we learned here back to our communities and use the information for [our] benefit," said Black, 63.