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Black Leaders Push Obama for Action at Forum

Panelist at 'We Count! The Black Agenda is The American Agenda' debate President Obama's public policy for African–Americans.
Black leaders debate President Barack Obama's public policy plans for African–Americans at a forum at Chicago State University on Saturday. (Photo by Sean Evans)

On the eve of the U.S. House of Representatives’ historic vote on health care reform, thousands of black Chicagoans attended a symposium to urge President Barack Obama to form public policy with African-Americans in mind.

The president has highlighted his administration’s efforts to overhaul the health care system, reform mortgage lending practices, improve the economy and improve education as policies that will impact the nation as a whole, not just blacks.

But some noted black leaders at Saturday’s forum, “We Count! The Black Agenda is the American Agenda,” argued the president needs to focus on blacks, who disproportionately lag behind in all these areas. They urged Obama to reach out to their community, which gave him 97 percent of their votes in the last presidential election.

The forum resembled a church session from the start as attendees stood and Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina opened with a prayer. Moderator and talk show host Tavis Smiley introduced the panelists to the audience and emphasized that the debate would remain positive by displaying a cube with the word “love” written on all sides.

“I want to make sure that love is so central to this dialogue.” said Smiley.

Panelists used the word “love” to indicate that they were not dismissing the president’s domestic policies, and they referenced times in history when other leaders used the word as the basis for their public policy agendas for blacks.

“When Herald Washington was mayor of Chicago, he said, ‘Because I love black people doesn’t mean that I don’t love anybody else,’” said former Chicago Ald. Dorothy Wright Tillman, one of 12 panelists at the event.

Other panelists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and professor Michael Eric Dyson, said blacks should not compare Obama to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead, Dyson compared Obama to African-American baseball great Jackie Robinson and said he may have to wait for “the Willie Mays of politics” to see the “black agenda” executed. Robinson is known as the athlete who broke the “color barrier” in baseball, but Mays is often credited as the greatest player of all time.

The panelists agreed that in order for blacks to see action from Obama’s administration, they would have to approach the situation the same way that blacks approached John F. Kennedy.

“If [blacks] get something, it is because we organized and forced the government to speak to our needs,” said Farrakhan, whose Nation of Islam followers provided stringent security for the event at Chicago State University.

Outside the event, Philip Jackson, founder of Black Star Project, a grassroots program that mentors young black boys, passed out fliers to recruit mentors for young black males in Chicago, but he said no one took them.

He added that the forum about the president’s efforts needed to be followed by actions. He urged leaders at the event not to just talk but to walk away from the conversation and work with those organizations trying to affect change in Chicago.

“They’re talking there and not essentially doing anything,” said Jackson. ”If they’re saying you can only talk so much, at that point they should have all gotten up and walked off the stage.”

Last week, the debate over the “black agenda” resulted in a public discourse between some black leaders. Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and Smiley, who hosts the “State of the Black Union” event, expressed their varied opinions about Obama on the radio.

To view the forum, click here.

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