Obama on the Record: NAACP Centennial Convention

I want their horizons to be limitless. I don’t — don’t tell them they can’t do something. Don’t feed our children with a sense of — that somehow because of their race that they cannot achieve.

Yes, government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day.

And that’s what the NAACP is all about. The NAACP was not founded in search of a handout. The NAACP was not founded in search of favors. The NAACP was founded on a firm notion of justice; to cash the promissory note of America that says all of our children, all God’s children, deserve a fair chance in the race of life. (Applause.)

It’s a simple dream, and yet one that all too often has been denied — and is still being denied to so many Americans. It’s a painful thing, seeing that dream denied. I remember visiting a Chicago school in a rough neighborhood when I was a community organizer, and some of the children gathered ’round me. And I remember thinking how remarkable it was that all of these children seemed so full of hope, despite being born into poverty, despite being delivered, in some cases, into addiction, despite all the obstacles they were already facing — you could see that spark in their eyes. They were the equal of children anywhere.

And I remember the principal of the school telling me that soon that sparkle would begin to dim, that things would begin to change; that soon, the laughter in their eyes would begin to fade; that soon, something would shut off inside, as it sunk in — because kids are smarter than we give them credit for — as it sunk in that their hopes would not come to pass — not because they weren’t smart enough, not because they weren’t talented enough, not because of anything about them inherently, but because, by accident of birth, they had not received a fair chance in life.

I know what can happen to a child who doesn’t have that chance. But I also know what can happen to a child that does. I was raised by a single mom. I didn’t come from a lot of wealth. I got into my share of trouble as a child. My life could have easily taken a turn for the worse. When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners, I say, there but for the grace of God go I. (Applause.) They’re no less gifted than me. They’re no less talented than me.

But I had some brakes. That mother of mine, she gave me love; she pushed me, she cared about my education; she took no lip; she taught me right from wrong. Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities. I had the chance to make the most of my opportunities. I had the chance to make the most of life.

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