By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – During his speech at the 45th Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) Phoenix Awards Dinner, President Barack Obama celebrated the critical role that Black women have played in “every great movement in American history” and pledged to address challenges they face in the workplace and in the criminal justice system.
The Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation focuses on issues affecting the Black community, domestically and abroad, and included policy forums on health, education, economic empowerment, Blacks in media and the criminal justice system.
In his speech, Obama touted national economic success following the Great Recession in the United States and the millions of people who gained access to health care through the Affordable Care Act. He also noted that none of it would have been possible without, “CBC taking tough votes when it mattered most.” Obama explained, “Whatever I’ve accomplished, the CBC has been there.”
During this year’s ALC Phoenix Awards Dinner, the foundation honored Fred Gray, the first civil rights attorney for Rosa Parks; Rev. William Barber, II, the president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP; Juanita Abernathy, civil rights activist and wife of the late Ralph Abernathy and the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, who has been hailed as the “Rosa Parks” of the Selma, Ala. voting movement.
President Obama praised the leadership of Black women displayed during the Civil Rights Movement, even though their contributions were often marginalized.
“Women were the foot soldiers. Women strategized boycotts. Women organized marches. Even if they weren’t allowed to run the civil rights organizations on paper, behind the scenes they were the thinkers and the doers making things happen each and every day doing the work that nobody else wanted to do,” President Obama said. “They couldn’t prophesize from the pulpits, but they led the charge from the pews. They were no strangers to violence. They were on the front lines.
“Because all of us are beneficiaries of a long line of strong Black women who helped carry this country forward. Their work to expand civil rights opened the doors of opportunity, not just for African Americans but for all women, for all of us – Black and White, Latino and Asian, LGBT and straight, for our First Americans and our newest Americans,” Obama said. “And their contributions in every field – as scientists and entrepreneurs, educators, explorers – all made us stronger.”
Obama added: “The good news is, despite structural barriers of race and gender, women and girls of color have made real progress in recent years. The number of Black women-owned businesses has skyrocketed. Teen pregnancy rates among girls of color are down, while high school and four-year college graduation rates are up.”
According to a 2014 report on women of color and entrepreneurship by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, business ownership for Black women grew nearly 260 percent between 1997 and 2013.
Despite the success Black women have enjoyed in entrepreneurship and higher graduation rates in recent years, they still have a long way to go to achieve equity in the workplace.
President Obama lamented the pay disparities between men and women and lack of management opportunities for Black women.
“It is an affront to the very idea of America when certain segments of our population don’t have access to the same opportunities as everybody else. It makes a mockery of our economy when Black women make 30 fewer cents for every dollar a White man earns,” said Obama. “That adds up to thousands of dollars in missed income that determines whether a family can pay for a home, or pay for college for their kids, or save for retirement, or give their kids a better life. And that’s not just a woman’s issue, that’s everybody’s issue.”
President Obama also said that he would continue to push for a higher minimum wage, to expand paid leave for employees of federal contractors and increase tax credits that help working families.
“It’s good for our economy. It’s the right thing to do,” said President Obama. “No family should have to choose between taking care of a sick child or losing their job.”
The president urged the audience not to forget the impact that the criminal justice system has on women, especially Black women who are incarcerated at twice the rate of their White counterparts.
“Many women in prison, you come to discover, have been victims of homelessness and domestic violence, and in some cases human trafficking,” Obama said. “And many have been sexually assaulted, both before they got to prison and then after they go to prison. And we don’t often talk about how society treats Black women and girls before they end up in prison. They’re suspended at higher rates than White boys and all other girls.”
President Obama said that he was confident that lawmakers could move forward to reform the criminal justice system and he pledged to work with the CBC and the rest of Congress on legislation that addresses “unjust sentencing laws,” encourages diversion and crime prevention programs, and supports returning citizens.
“We’ve got good people on both sides of the aisle that are working with law enforcement and local communities to find a better way forward,” President Obama said. “And as always, change will not happen overnight. It won’t be easy.
“But if our history has taught us anything, it’s taught us that when we come together, when we’re working with a sense of purpose, when we are listening to one another, when we assume the best in each other rather than the worst, then change happens.”