NEW YORK - -In his first address to the nation's civil rights leaders since his election, President Barack Obama marked the centennial anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by paying tribute Thursday to its history and calling on activists to tackle modern-day problems.
Only because of their forerunners, Obama told members, could he, as an African-American, stand before them as president of the United States.
"I understand there may be a temptation among some to think that discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009," Obama said. "But make no mistake, the pain of discrimination is still felt in America."
Hundreds of people packed a hotel ballroom to hear Obama speak in New York, the city where the organization, standard-bearer of the civil rights movement and still the largest civil rights group in the nation, was founded in February 1909.
The day's event was historic in imagery alone - the first black president at the lectern before an organization founded at the height of racial discrimination, when Southern lawmakers were codifying segregation and erecting barriers to the voting booth.
But while he marked the moment in history, Obama looked ahead, asking NAACP members to turn their attention with him to the continuing struggle for equality for blacks and for people of every color and creed.
It was the first discourse on race that Obama has delivered in more than a year, since a controversy over the minister of his church in Chicago inspired him to clarify his views with a speech on race, politics and society in the spring of 2008.
In that address, Obama distanced himself from public statements by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., saying that they expressed a "profoundly distorted view of this country" and caused division "at a time when we need unity."
In that sense, the NAACP speech was tautly in line with Obama's established rhetoric on race. Blacks are more likely to be hit by unemployment, spiraling health care costs and AIDS, Obama said.
But those challenges are not limited by racial boundaries, he said.
The pain of inequality is felt by people everywhere, Obama said: "By African-American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a different color and gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in their own country. By Muslim-Americans viewed with suspicion for simply kneeling down to pray. By our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights."
In a room with many black clergy leaders, the appeal for gay rights was not an easy applause line.
But Obama was preaching to the choir as he pitched his most pressing domestic policy goals, speaking in biblical terms of an economy "built not on a rock, but sand." He asked for help in creating a more solid foundation, built on his proposals for health care, energy and financial reforms.
Echoing themes of his presidential campaign, Obama urged black parents to take responsibility for their children and to encourage them to aspire to great things.
If marches and protests were the tools of yesteryear, Obama emphasized a different route to empowerment.
"That means putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour," he said. "It means attending those parent-teacher conferences, reading to our kids, and helping them with their homework." He said it also means looking after neighbors' children and setting higher goals.
"They might think they've got a pretty good jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can't all aspire to be the next LeBron or Lil Wayne," Obama said. "I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court justice. I want them aspiring to be president of the United States."
The key to success, Obama said, is improving education for all. Citing school segregation and the fight that was waged both on school steps and in courthouses, he said the condition of schools is an American problem, not an African-American one.
"There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob," Obama said. "It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential."
Unlocking that potential, though, means acknowledging the challenges facing black youth and then finding a solution to problems that are the legacy of decades of institutionalized discrimination.
"We have to say to our children, 'Yes, if you're African-American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face," Obama said, returning to his tough-love message familiar from his two-year presidential campaign.