A birthday letter to President Barack Obama


Dear Mr. President,

When I reached my 90th birthday in December of 2008, you wrote me a beautiful letter of congratulations. That letter was one of the highlights of my life. You had just been elected President and were awaiting your inauguration. This week, we’re celebrating your re-election and I’m celebrating my 94th birthday. Over the past four years so much has happened.

Just this past month, our community and our nation lost a great and memorable man. Some might call him a scientific genius. You might not be familiar with Dr. Welton Taylor, so let me explain. Welton Taylor was a member of our South Side community. Our families came from the same town — Florence, Ala. — where our mothers and grandmothers knew each other. Florence was also the hometown of Oscar DePriest, the first Black congressman after Reconstruction, and of W.C. Handy, father of the urban blues. Between 1918 and 1920, both Welton Taylor’s family and my family immigrated to Chicago. Welton and I grew up on what I like to call our Sacred Ground here on the South Side. We both attended DuSable High School. Dr. Taylor became a member of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen who flew courageously in World War II. He was a microbiologist who is credited with discovering the micro-organisms which cause many foodborne illnesses, including the notorious Salmonella, and the means to detect many of them. He was a distinguished advocate for food safety, sanitation, inspection and regulation of the food industry, and was often consulted as an expert witness in that field. Dr. Taylor is just one example of the kind of talent and the contributions that our South Side community has produced. I doubt there is any African American neighborhood in the United States from which more artists, scientists, merchants and elected officials have emerged.

Dr. Taylor used the GI Bill after his service in World War II to become a highly educated man. Now, having equal or advantageous opportunity does not necessarily mean you will act in the interest of those who produced you, your family and your neighborhood. Not everyone who comes from our community makes a difference. From our community, out of my generation, much of the talent exited, and some were even absorbed into the corrupt power structure. Years after the Great Migration from the South, which brought the Taylors and the Blacks and so many others to Chicago, at least one third of African American families were still living in poverty. Even after we served our nation in World War II, where I saw the horrors of fascism at Buchenwald concentration camp, we still returned to a segregated America. There was and is still so much to be accomplished.

Mr. President, if I were to sit down with you today, I would remind you of the great people of our community, like Dr. Taylor, Dr. Margaret Burroughs and so many others, who paved the way for your achievements. I would encourage you to fight and fight hard to carry on with the kind of determination that your predecessors possessed. Not to fold, not to compromise on the matters of hard-won principle and public policy for which your forebears fought.

In Chicago there’s a group of us old-timers who get together once a month at an eatery called Cap’n Hard Times. We remember the hard times, and some of us are still experiencing hard times. What unites us, whether we are affluent or economically strapped, is our commitment to social progress, justice and peace. (If you ever find yourself looking for a place to grab a bite I urge you to stop by Cap’n Hard Times on 79th Street — I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.)

When you were elected, my friends and I sat together celebrating. We felt you were Joshua, who had just “fit the battle of Jericho.” We hoped out loud that you would launch a modernized version of the New Deal, the most sweeping program of social and economic support, public investment and stimulus this nation has ever seen. It produced so much progress, both for individuals and families and for cities, and for education, for industry and for the arts. The New Deal offered a hand to the people most in need. It changed millions of lives for the better. It left institutions, programs and works of enduring art in our country. It’s time to do it again, Mr. President. There is no shortage of ideas, energy and veterans of the New Deal who can help you assemble a New New Deal suitable for our time.

We understand the array of obstacles that were put in the road to block your way during your first term. We understand the legacy of Bush-era thievery which you had to cope with, the bail-outs you were forced to support just to keep the system afloat. We understand, too, the vicious threats and racist abuse to which you’ve been subjected by hateful tea-baggers.

We understand and we’ve been patient. We’ve supported you, we old-timers and young folks from your old community. We held fundraisers from fish-fries to black ties — again. We registered voters — again. We got the vote out — again. We went to Wisconsin and Ohio and Michigan — again — to help out, since you were a shoo-in in our neighborhood.

We understood you felt that some compromises were essential. But if I were to sit down with you today, I’d remind you: We stuck by you. We had your back. We expect nothing less from you. We’re retired teachers and postal workers, living on our pensions, or on our Social Security, relying on our Medicare coverage. We contributed faithfully to our savings and pension funds and paid our dues. We trust that you will shield these programs upon which we and our families depend. On Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, compromise means whittling away and destroying the great social programs which shield millions from abject poverty.

We listen carefully to your speeches. We wait for you to use the words “the poor.” We hear only about the “middle class,” but there are plenty of folks in our community for whom that term simply does not yet apply. And yet, they vote. They too deserve your attention and help. For your second term, you can make America’s urban and rural poor visible and help them to get the employment, the training and the assistance they need to survive in hard times. Don’t leave them invisible. We’re counting on you to make them visible and to fight for them.

Take advantage of the heritage of the New Deal. Although FDR was born to great wealth, he nevertheless listened to the appeals of advisors — including civil rights leaders and labor organizers — to create relief programs, job programs and public works programs to employ and feed millions. We’re in a moment of crisis today that rivals the conditions FDR faced. Are you listening to advisors from the social justice movements of our time, and to advocates for those in poverty?
We’ve got to use this country’s resources to fix our schools rather than to build more prisons. We could use the unemployed, the underemployed, the college graduates who lack jobs for which they were educated, and the veterans returning en masse from the wars; we could create new arenas of opportunity reclaiming wasted land in cities and in farm lands.

I want to make clear I am not berating you. I am imploring you and encouraging you to seize this moment as a turning point. Mr. President, during your first term, we know you struggled with incessant, inflexible opposition to your every effort. You tried hard to reach compromises and even then they blocked you at every turn.

But in the next four years, you are FREE. You have nothing to lose by fighting hard. Don’t let your people and your old community feel neglected or ignored. I hope you will hear this advice in the spirit in which I offer it, as your friend, neighbor and ally.

My contemporaries and I hope and pray for you to become one of the most successful and cherished presidents in U.S. history. We know you can be that. Let’s do that. We stand ready to help.