Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama told members of the Howard University community Friday that if elected he would work to restore justice and equality in the country and confidence that America’s judicial system works for everyone.
“From the day I take office as president of the United States, America will have a justice department that is truly dedicated to justice,” Obama told an audience of 1,500 students, alumni and faculty at a ceremony marking the start of the 140th academic year at the historically Black university in Washington, D.C.
“For the first time in eight years, the civil rights division will actually be staffed with civil rights lawyers who prosecute civil rights violations and employment discrimination and hate crimes,“ Obama said. His administration, Obama said, would recruit more public defenders by forgiving college and law school loans.
Obama spoke at the end of a week that marked the 50th anniversary of nine Black students integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Three days before this anniversary, an estimated 20,000 traveled to Jena, La., to protest charges against six Black teens involved in a fight with a White teen last year at Jena High School. Protesters have argued that the case stemmed from discrimination and the Black students are being unfairly prosecuted.
Obama said that it is up to the current generation of young people to continue the work toward equality that began five decades ago.
“We have more work to do,” Obama said. “It’s not enough just us to look back and wonder at how far we have come. I want us to look ahead with a fierce urgency at how far we have left to go.”
Reminding the audience of his work to reform the death penalty system and enact racial profiling legislation as a state senator, the Illinois Democrat said his presidential administration would work to reform the nation’s criminal justice system. Specifically, Obama said his administration would review cases of first-time, non-violent drug offenders serving long prison sentences.
“We will give [them] a chance to serve their sentence where appropriate, in the type of drug and rehab programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior and reducing recidivism,” Obama said.
Linking civil rights to education policy, Obama said his administration would work to develop more after-school programs, raise salaries for teachers, repair school buildings and make college education more affordable.
“It’s time we made college affordable and accessible to every young person that is qualified without loading them up with $50,000 worth of debt,” Obama said.
Obama said he will ask all Americans to work to restore a sense of justice and equal opportunity in America.
“It will take a movement to finish what began in Topeka, Kan. and Little Rock, Ark. … a movement of every American from every city and town, of every race and every background to stand up and say that no matter what you look like, or where you come from, every child in America should have the opportunity to receive the best education this country has to offer,” Obama said.
“I urge you to think about how far you have come and where you need to go … the risks you will take and the role you will play in building the movement that will get us there,” Obama said.
“The speech was so powerful. I hope that he sees his plans to fruition,” Veronica Dingwall, a Howard University senior majoring in political science, said. Dingwall said she shares Obama’s view that today’s young people are “the generation of Joshua” and must continue efforts to advance civil rights and equality in America.
Prior to addressing the audience, Dr. Patrick Swygert, the president of Howard University conferred upon Obama an honorary doctor of law.
“You have captured us with your passionate message of hope and fueled our dreams and desires for an equal and just nation,” Swygert said upon conferring the degree.
First-year Howard students received priority to attend the opening convocation, which also was broadcast live on local public television station WHUT-TV. Past opening and closing convocation speakers include the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Ossie Davis, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Oprah Winfrey.
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