President Barack Obama keynotes National Action Network’s 16th Annual Convention

obamananPresident Barack Obama,  President of  The United States

Now, the last time I was here was three years ago, and a few things have changed since then.  I am here as a second term President. I have more gray hair.  It’s all right. Let’s see, what else; I’ve got twice as many dogs. I’m glad I won’t have to serve a third term because three dogs is too many. I can’t keep on promising Malia and Sasha another dog.

Of course one thing that has not changed is your commitment to the cause of civil rights for everybody and opportunity for all people. And that’s been something that’s been on my mind this week. Some of you may know that yesterday I was down in Austin, Texas at the LBJ Library to speak on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the man who signed it into law. And standing there, I thought of all the Americans, known and unknown, who made it possible for me to stand in that spot, who marched and organized, and sat in, and stood up for jobs and for justice. I thought of all who achieved that great victory and others, not just with respect to the Civil Rights Act, but the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, and immigration reform, and Medicare and Medicaid, and the first battles of a long War on Poverty.

And over the past five years, in the wake of the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes, we’ve won some victories, too. Nearly 9 million new jobs at America’s businesses over the past four years. Seven and a half million Americans signing up to buy health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. And millions more who have gained coverage through Medicaid and CHIP, and young people being able to stay on their parents’ plans. The rate of uninsured Americans is down. High school dropout rates are down. Our high school graduation rate is the highest on record. More young people are earning college degrees than ever before.  We’ve made progress and we’ve taken action.

But we also know our work is unfinished. Too many Americans working harder than ever just to get by. Too many Americans who aren’t working at all. We know we have to do more to restore America’s promise of opportunity for all people, particularly for communities hardest hit by the recession; particularly for those who struggled since long before the recession, not only African Americans and Latinos, but Americans trapped across the country in pockets of poverty: inner city, suburban, rural.

And we know what opportunity means. Opportunity means more good jobs that pay good wages. Opportunity means training folks for those jobs.

Opportunity means changing the odds for all of our children through Pre-K, something Mayor de Blasio is fighting for here in New York City. And opportunity means affordable higher education for all who are willing to work for it.

Opportunity means answering the call to be My Brother’s Keeper and helping more boys and young men of color stay on track and reach their full potential.

Before I came out, I was in a photo line, saw my good friend, Freddie Haynes, a great pastor from the great state of Texas.  And he told me this summer they’re going to hire 100 young men, pay them $10.10 an hour maybe $10.50 as a consequence of this call. And the point is, is that My Brother’s Keeper, that’s not just something I do, that’s not just something the government does. That’s something everybody can participate in, because we know these young men need support.

Opportunity means making the minimum wage a wage you can live on. It means equal pay for equal work. It means overtime pay for workers who have earned it. It means continuing to extend the right of quality, affordable health care for every American in every state, because we’ve got some states that aren’t doing the right thing.  We have states who just out of political spite are leaving millions of people uninsured that could be getting health insurance right now. No good reason for it.  If you ask them what’s the explanation they can’t really tell you.

And, by the way, making sure our citizens have the opportunity to lead healthy lives also means dealing with things like the dangerous carbon pollution that’s disproportionately affecting low-income communities. It means making sure that our young people are eating right, so listen to Michelle. I’m just saying.

So we know we’ve got more work to do to bridge the gap between our founding ideals and the realities of our time.

And the question then becomes, well, how do we actually make these changes?  How does it happen? How do we get a minimum wage bill passed? How do we make sure that those states that aren’t yet implementing the Affordable Care Act actually are doing right by their citizens? It means being vigilant. We’ve got to be vigilant to secure the gains we’ve made, but also to make more gains in the future.

And that’s the meaning of these last 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. Because across the country right now there are well-organized and well-funded efforts to undo these gains. And one of those gains is under particular assault right now, and that’s what I want to spend the rest of my time here talking about.

Just as inequality feeds on injustice, opportunity requires justice. And justice requires the right to vote. President Johnson, right after he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, told his advisors, some of whom were telling him, well, all right, just wait. You’ve done a big thing now; let’s let the dust settle, don’t stir folks up. He said, no, no, I can’t wait. We’ve got to press forward and pass the Voting Rights Act.  Johnson said, “About this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.”

Voting is a time when we all have an equal say Black or White, rich or poor, man or woman.  It doesn’t matter. In the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our democracy, we’re all supposed to have that equal right to cast our ballot to help determine the direction of our society.

The principle of one person, one vote is the single greatest tool we have to redress an unjust status quo. You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore. But the stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago.

Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote. In some places, women could be turned away from the polls just because they’re registered under their maiden name but their driver’s license has their married name. Senior citizens who have been voting for decades may suddenly be told they can no longer vote until they can come up with the right ID.

In other places, folks may learn that without a document like a passport or a birth certificate, they can’t register. About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a passport. Just because you don’t have the money to travel abroad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to vote here at home.

And just to be clear, I know where my birth certificate is, but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people don’t. I think it’s still up on a website somewhere.  You remember that? That was crazy. That was some crazy stuff. I hadn’t thought about that in a while.

Now, I want to be clear I am not against reasonable attempts to secure the ballot.  We understand that there has to be rules in place.  But I am against requiring an ID that millions of Americans don’t have.

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