It was a phrase first made famous in a Malcolm X speech, then within the dialogue of Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film of the same name: “Do the right thing.” The words, though simplistic, symbolize the need to make tough choices in turbulent times. Pushing forward with optimism into uncharted territory takes wisdom, courage and character, traits that our current two-term President, Barack Obama, spoke of during his final address to the nation from Chicago on Tuesday night.
The farewell speech of a president has been a tradition since George Washington and the early days of the colonies. Over the years, the address has solidified one’s stance on the issues, summarized one’s achievements and what challenges the country may face in the years ahead. What President Obama did, however, was more than what expectations dictated: he left a message of hope.
Soon, the United States will be under the command of its 45th President. A contentious election and a leader set on eschewing convention has resulted in citizens dealing with suspicion and fear. But even as he acknowledged the unrest, Pres. Obama, a one-time community organizer, civil rights attorney and Senator, reminded all who listened that they also had the power to initiate change: “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself,” Obama said. “Show up. Dive in. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours.”
By the looks on the faces in the crowd before him, the trust invested in his leadership was well-placed. Obama’s skills in combining intellect and humility emboldened the young and inspired the weary. For every gaffe and misstep the President committed while in office, there were victories and promises kept that will impact the nation positively long after he’s left 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
If the meaning of ‘character’ is what one does when they think no one is looking, then the principle was also personified by the First Lady and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. In a world plagued by instant access to scandals and salacious details, his wife and daughters represented the nation with style and grace. Many a stereotype about black families were shattered by their achievements as a couple and their unabashed affection for their country, their daughters and each other.
The differences in the circumstances that elected No. 44 and No. 45 are as drastic as night and day. Values that many claimed were important to find in their leaders appear to have little priority. A nation built by the talents of diversity now seems poised to serve the interests of a monochromatic few.
But on Tuesday night, Pres. Barack Obama assured all who listened that we citizens still hold the power. The final say of where the country goes next still relies on the will of the people, the Democratic process and leaders who understand that change is inevitable and must shift to include us all: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves. If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.”
Trends change, flavors fall out of fashion…but courage and character are what will stand the test of time. That’s why Barack Obama succeeded and that’s why doing the right thing continues to make sense.