President Barack Obama (154648)

A major speech by President Barack Obama can be wide-ranging, touching on a shopping list of topics, or it can be precisely tailored to a single issue. During his appearance last Saturday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 45th annual Phoenix Awards Dinner at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., he centered his remarks on the role of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement.

“Women were the foot soldiers,” he said toward the beginning of his half-hour address, which was repeatedly interrupted by applause, “Women strategized boycotts. Women organized marches. Even if they weren’t allowed to run the civil rights organizations on paper, behind the scenes they were the thinkers and the doers, making things happen each and every day, doing the work that no one else wanted to do.”

Despite this unstinting commitment to the movement for change, the president said that women are still underrepresented in low-paying jobs and underrepresented in management. He cited the many stereotypes and social pressures women endure, even noting how his wife was met with opposition in her quest for employment.

“So we all have to be louder than the voices that are telling our girls they’re not good enough, that they’ve got to look a certain way or they’ve got to act a certain way or set their goals at a certain level,” he stated.

Obama was particularly passionate in his recollection of spending time with Amelia Boynton Robinson, the civil rights legend who died recently at 104. A photo of Obama walking beside her, holding her hand as she wheeled across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., appeared on the front pages of several national publications

“I had Ms. Amelia’s hand in one of my hands, but Michelle had Sasha’s hand, and my mother-in-law had Malia’s hand, and it was a chain across generations,” Obama said. This chain is an example we all must follow, he added. “If we keep moving forward, hand in hand, God willing, my daughters’ children will be able to cross that bridge in an America that’s more free, and more just, and more prosperous than the one we inherited.”

Robinson was among those presented awards, including the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of North Carolina, whose Moral Mondays movement has played a significant role in the fight against voter repression; attorney Fred Gray, who often marched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s side and represented him in court; and Juanita Abernathy, the widow of the civil rights leader, who was a vital force in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The late Julian Bond and Louis Stokes were also saluted for their tireless devotion to civil rights.

When he wasn’t singing the praises of women, the president commented on the criminal justice system and other issues that often crowd his agenda.