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Remarks in Manning, South Carolina: "A Challenge for Our Times"

November 02, 2007

It's a special honor to be here in Clarendon County. Because Clarendon County is the place that showed me and showed America that when ordinary people come together, they can do extraordinary things.

That's the Clarendon County I know.

I know how sixty years ago, the NAACP's James Hinton dared to ask why white children could ride buses to school but black children had to walk.

I know how Reverend J.A. DeLaine, a preacher and teacher in Summerton, heard that call and joined with Levi Pearson, a father who was sick and tired of seeing his children walk nine miles to school, and with Harry and Eliza Briggs and more than a dozen other Black parents to challenge unequal education.

I know that because of that challenge, Harry Briggs lost his job at the local service station, Eliza Briggs lost hers at a local hotel, and Reverend DeLaine's home was burned to the ground while the fire department stood by and watched.

It would have been easy for them to stay home. To heed the voices of caution and convenience that said, "wait," "the timing isn't right," or "the country just isn't ready." It would have been easy for them to give in to the fears that no doubt kept them awake some nights.

But I know that because they were willing to overcome their fears and reach for a larger dream, the Supreme Court overturned "separate but equal," and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

And I know that I stand on their shoulders, that their courage and sacrifice six decades ago makes it possible for me to run today for President of the United States.

So I know Clarendon County. The Clarendon County that showed a nation how to look up rather than down. The Clarendon County that made a claim on the American Dream. The Clarendon County that changed the course of history.

But I also know another Clarendon County.

I know schools in the Corridor of Shame.

I know J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon was built more than a century ago, and for years had shattered windows, leaking ceilings, and broken bathrooms.

I know South Carolina has the worst high school dropout rate in America.

I know that all across this nation, one out of every four children go to schools just like J. V. Martin, and take away the same message that we don't care enough about their education to do better by them.

I know that America today is still blind to the poverty in our midst, and that we still tolerate Jena justice for some and Scooter Libby justice for others.

I know that Black parents in Clarendon are still having to go to court to give their children an equal education - fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education.

There is another side of Clarendon County, another side of America, still waiting for what Harry and Eliza Briggs hoped for. The hope that our children's destinies aren't written before they are born. The hope that one day the world as it is and the world as it should be might be one and the same.

That is why I stand before you today as a candidate for President of the United States of America.

I am running because I refuse to accept that the way it is, is the way it has to be. I refuse to accept it when I hear adults say things like "these kids can't learn" or "these kids come from tough backgrounds" or "these kids are too far behind." We need to start treating "these kids" like "our kids."

I am running because I want a sense of urgency about our kids in Washington. When I'm in the White House, we'll reform No Child Left Behind so we don't leave the money behind. We'll recruit an army of new teachers - and make sure they come teach here in Manning - because the most important factor in a child's education is the person standing at the head of the classroom. We'll invest in early childhood education because for every dollar we put there, we get seven dollars back in reduced dropout rates, reduced delinquency, and reduced prison rates, and more young people can go to college and get good jobs. And we'll rebuild our broken schools.

We know why this matters. It's not just that a good education is essential to helping the children of today compete more effectively as the workers of tomorrow. It's that the promise of a good education makes it possible for every child to transcend the barriers of race and class and background and achieve their God-given potential. That's why Harry and Eliza Briggs put their names on that lawsuit. That's why so many others risked so much to give their children an equal education. That's my story. That's what the American story is supposed to be about.

That cause is worth fighting for. A quality education is worth fighting for. Universal health care is worth fighting for. Economic opportunity is worth fighting for. Equality is still worth fighting for.

And when I'm President, we're going to have a government that helps us win these fights. Not because it's up to me alone. Not because I have a corner on all the best ideas. But because I understand that we need more than a new campaign or candidate - we need a movement. We need a president ready to partner with you and not too important to do so, ready to move the American people to common cause on these issues, and willing to ask you to do your part - not just as voters, but as citizens.

Because the truth is, no matter how many government programs we launch or how many tax dollars we spend, we can still fall short if each of us is unwilling to do our own part. If we're unwilling to be responsible parents and turn off the TV, put away the video games, read to our child, and attend those parent/teacher conferences.

We can still fall short if we don't heal the hole in the hearts of all those young men standing on street corners in every city in this country without a sense of any destiny other than ending up in jail or dead. And healing that hole is going to take more than a change in policy; it's going to take a change of heart.

We're going to have to reclaim in our own lives the belief that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. It's the belief that led folks in Clarendon not to turn their backs on Harry Briggs and his fellow foot soldiers, but to offer them money when their credit was cut at the local store, and a place to stay when they were kicked off the land. It's the belief that led a white judge named J. Waites Waring to stand by their side even after a cross was burned on his lawn and shots were fired into his living room. And it's the belief that led me into public service more than two decades ago.

As some of you may know, after college, I walked away from a career on Wall Street, and went to work with a group of churches as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago so I could fight for folks who had lost their jobs when the local steel plant closed. And ever since, I've been fighting to put the American Dream within reach for every American. That's why I went to work as a civil rights lawyer, and as a state Senator and as a U.S. Senator. That's why I expanded health care to 150,000 children and their parents in Illinois. That's why I led the fight to reform a death penalty system that had sentenced 13 innocent men to death. That's why I led the fight to reform racial profiling. And that's why you can trust that I'll fight for you as President.

Now, I've heard that some folks aren't sure America is ready for an African-American president, so let me be clear: I never would have begun this campaign if I weren't confident I could win. But you see, I am not asking anyone to take a chance on me. I am asking you to take a chance on your own aspirations.

Just imagine what we could do as partners in an Obama administration. Imagine a President who was raised like I was by a single mom who had to work and go to school and raise her kids and accept food stamps for a while. Imagine a President who could go into Holly Courts Apartments here in Manning or Scott's Branch High School in Summerton, and give the young men and women there someone to look up to. Imagine a President who fought each day to narrow the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

Narrowing that gap is not going to be easy. But real change never is. I can still remember one of the early days when I was just starting out as a community organizer in Chicago. We had set up a meeting to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods, but no one showed up. And our volunteers felt so defeated, they wanted to quit. And I was tired too.

But at that moment, I looked outside and saw some young boys playing in a vacant lot across the street, tossing stones at a boarded-up apartment building. And I turned to the volunteers, and I asked them, "Before you quit, I want you to answer one question. What's gonna happen to those boys?" I thought, if we cannot put aside our doubts and our cynicism; if we cannot see that we have a stake in those children; if we don't realize that the fight for their future is the fight for our own, who will? One by one, the volunteers decided to stay. And block by block, we began to turn those neighborhoods around.

So today, sixty years after James Hinton issued his challenge, I want to issue a challenge of my own. If you're tired of the politics of fear and division; if you're tired of a government that stands idly by while our schools go underfunded, our children go unemployed, and our communities are neglected; if you feel as I do that if we don't fight for that next generation of children, who will? - then I'm asking you to join me. And if you can do that - if you can overcome your doubts, cast away your fears, and believe once again that real change is possible in this country - then I truly believe we can bring about the world that Harry and Eliza Briggs dreamed of for their children.

Barack Obama, Remarks in Manning, South Carolina: "A Challenge for Our Times" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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