Mitchell: A favorite son comes home
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It was not so much what President Barack Obama said in his historic farewell speech, it is where he gave it.
Home Sweet Home.
We are a city now shunned by many as the place where horrible crimes happen daily, with one bloody headline replacing another.
Throughout Obama’s presidency, many of the city’s activists cried out, begging him to come home and work his magic in neighborhoods where young black men were dying in droves.
His response was the creation of “My Brother’s Keeper,” a nationwide initiative that brought mentoring and other social services to at-risk youth in depressed communities.
First lady Michelle Obama came to town when Hadiya Pendleton was murdered in a small neighborhood park a couple of blocks away from the Obamas’ home in the Oakland-Kenwood community, a victim of the insane proliferation of illegal guns on the city’s streets.
We appreciated her thoughtfulness and kindness of spirit, and that spirit was the foundation for a historic victory that changed how African-American achievers would forever see themselves.
Obama broke the final barrier. Regardless of where you were or who you were with that night in 2008, you teared up.
While Hawaii is where Obama was reared, Chicago is where he was nurtured in the politics that took him from being an unknown state senator to being the president of the United States.
“It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss. This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it,” Obama said in his farewell address.
But too often, it felt like a one-sided love affair that began in 2004, when he seduced the Democratic National Convention with an eloquent speech about a “United States of America.”
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I was on the floor of the convention center that night, along with thousands of others who had never heard of Obama. Without knowing a thing other than that Obama could deliver a powerful speech, people were already speculating that he could one day become president.
We were simply mesmerized.
Obama took that seminal moment and turned it into a political campaign the likes of which few of us had ever seen.
But as the late Gwen Ifill, the esteemed host of the “PBS NewsHour” who recently passed away, once told me on the campaign trail, despite the historic accomplishment there would later be a lot of hurt feelings on the part of those who had helped Obama cross this boundary.
As Obama’s circle of influence grew, so did the sense that those who had been there from the beginning were getting left behind.
It didn’t seem fair.
They were the people who believed in his message of hope when there were few believers.
They were the doorknockers, the phone ringers, the pencil pushers, and the hand holders who put their own lives on hold to give Obama’s message of hope life.
They were also the community activists, many of whom worked to elect Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor, who through their meager resources behind Obama’s quest to become president.
Tuesday’s homecoming was an affirmation that their work mattered.
After eight years in office, Obama told the nation that change still happens when Americans come together.
“I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government,” he said.
“It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union,” the president told an adoring crowd.
“You were the change, the answer to people’s hope. Because of you by almost every measure America is a better, stronger place,” he said.
Now that he is leaving the White House to become a private citizen, Obama was free to say some things many of us had hoped he would have said during his tenure.
For instance, he used his strongest language yet in talking about race relations in America.
“Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he said, also acknowledging that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Obama’s farewell was as poignant as his beginning.
It reminded us that life is a circle.
Regardless who you are or what position you hold in life, you can find yourself back where you have been.Tweets by @MaryMitchellCST