From NBC's Andy Merten
Obama spoke this afternoon at Howard University here in Washington to lay out his policy proposals to address the disparities in America's criminal justice and voting systems. He was met by a wildly enthusiastic audience at the historically black university's fall convocation ceremony, and called for new measures to advance civil rights.
"It's not enough just to look back in wonder of how far we've come -- I want us to look ahead with a fierce urgency of how far we have left to go," Obama said, citing Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the everyday people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
But on top of the strong and lofty rhetoric that has become a trademark of Obama's "hope" and "change" message, the Illinois senator used his forum today to present a list of policy proposals to tackle today's civil rights shortcomings. His approach is five-pronged: (1) rid the Department of Justice of "political cronies" and instead staff the civil rights division with qualified attorneys; (2) create a voting rights division within the DOJ to track and prosecute voter fraud and intimidation; (3) recruit more qualified public defenders by providing college and law school loan compensation as incentives for new attorneys; (4) close the disparity between punishment for crack-cocaine and powder cocaine; and (5) review mandatory minimums, offering first-time, non-violent drug offenders the chance to serve their sentence in rehab instead of jail, when appropriate.
In addition to his agenda run-down, Obama also solicited adoring support from the audience in addressing the issue of the Jena Six, a week after the Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized him for saying that the issue wasn't a matter of "black and white," but instead, "right and wrong." But the presidential hopeful stepped up his criticism of the situation in Louisiana, today.
"You have to understand how badly our system of justice failed those six boys in the days after that fight," Obama said, adding later, "Like Katrina did with poverty, Jena exposed glaring inequalities in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard fight broke out."
While Obama kept nearly all of his political jabs aimed at the other side of the aisle, he did take a moment at the conclusion of his speech to poke fun at the media, and possibly, Clinton. Telling the Biblical story of Moses and Joshua -- in which Joshua was called upon to finish Moses' job of leading people out of Egypt -- he told the young audience they are the Joshua generation, called on to finish the job of past civil rights leaders. In describing Joshua's doubts about his ability to lead, Obama deviated from his prepared remarks, adding that some thought he was not "experienced enough." The crowd quickly understood the implicit comparison and awarded the senator with laughter and a standing ovation.
Today's speech at Howard University is followed by an address to the Congressional Black Caucus' Legislative Forum. Clinton addressed the group this morning.