DETROIT — Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said African-Americans will need the hope and courage that led civil rights pioneers to triumph over racism so they can ensure a better future for themselves and their children.

Eston Bond
Obama spoke before 10,000 people in Detroit on May 1. He is only the fifth African-American ever in the Senate. (MIKE HULSEBUS/Daily)

Speaking at the Detroit NAACP’s 50th annual “Fight for Freedom” dinner on Sunday, Obama was given the Lifetime Achievement award in front of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan congressional delegation and approximately 10,000 people in attendance.

“I have to say I was hesitant when I received the lifetime achievement award,” Obama said. “Someone asked me ‘How does it feel to make history,’ I said, ‘I don’t feel like I made history, I won an election and there’s work to do.’ ”

Obama’s election made him the fifth African-American to ever serve in the U.S. Senate. He credited his success to civil rights advocates he channeled to motivate the audience to improve black communities and schools.

“In a world where kids from Detroit aren’t just competing with kids from Macomb for middle-class jobs but with kids from Malaysia and New Delhi, ensuring that every American child gets the best education possible is the new civil rights challenge of our time,” Obama said.

The senator reminded his audience that

the civil rights movement was not all clarity and unity, but a period of difficulty and division, adding that all roads to change are difficult.

“And so it’s never been clear. And it’s never been easy. To get to where we are today it took struggle and sacrifice, discipline and tremendous courage,” Obama said. “The battle lines may have shifted, and the barriers to equality may be new, but what’s not new is the need for everyday heroes to stand up and speak out for what they believe is right.”

Obama said he believed the country needs to put greater investment in schools and criticizing his Republican peers for failing to fund schools.

“In Washington, they’ll talk about the importance of education one day and sign big tax cuts that starve our schools the next. They’ll talk about leaving no child behind but then say nothing when it becomes obvious that they’ve left the money behind,” he said.

Congress has funded the No Child Left Behind Act below authorized levels since it became law in 2001.

While all politicians have a “mutual responsibility” to ensure well-funded schools and affordable higher education, Obama said individuals must bare some of the responsibility for the state of their schools and communities as well.

“Our grandparents used to tell us that being black means you have to work twice as hard to succeed in life. And so I ask today, can we honestly say our kids are working twice as hard as the kids in India and China who are graduating ahead of us, with better test scores and the tools they need to kick our butts on the job market? Can we honestly say our teachers are working twice as hard, or our parents,” Obama asked as the audience nodded their heads.

Improvement was needed at home as well.

“We’ve got some work to do in our own households and our own communities — new money won’t make a dime’s bit of difference if we don’t turn off the television set. Economic development includes throwing your own trash away to keep communities clean, to shopping in our own stores,” Obama said, as the audience affirmed his statements with applause and murmurs of approval.

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