Obama invokes John Lewis, MLK in appeal to disillusioned voters in Atlanta

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Former President Barack Obama on Monday made a concerted effort to turn out disaffected Black voters in Atlanta, using local civil rights icons and this summer’s protests for racial justice to appeal to voters who might be turned off by the more incremental changes accomplished by electoral politics.

“Maybe you don’t like who’s in the White House right now. But you just lost faith in government, you’re frustrated, you don’t think government makes a difference,” he told supporters at a Georgia rally, addressing his comments specifically to those who had decided not to vote in this year’s election.

The former president noted that he’d experienced his fair share of disappointment in politics both during and after his eight years in the White House.

But Obama invoked hometown civil rights icons like the late Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., arguing that both men understood that activism in the streets needed to be paired with even incremental progress in the political realm.

“If we’re gonna translate our aspirations into laws and practices, we’ve gotta engage in both,” Obama said, referencing a conversation he’d had with Lewis before the congressman’s death this summer.

The former president’s plea comes as Democrats are pulling out all the stops to turn out Black men in Tuesday’s election, part of a key voting bloc that voted in lower numbers in key states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

And the location of Obama’s appeal — in the traditionally red state of Georgia — is one in which Democrats believe they have a real chance to flip from red to blue at both the presidential and Senate levels, and where Black voters are expected to make up a significant chunk of the electorate.

Black voters there were already turning out in record numbers as early voting drew to a close, but President Donald Trump has sought to make inroads with Black men across the country, trying to improve his standing with them even marginally while siphoning away key votes from his opponent, Joe Biden.

“When John Lewis started marching across that bridge, it didn’t eliminate racism and bigotry in America, but it started something that got the Voting Rights Act passed. And it made things better,” Obama said, referring to the infamous 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala. Likewise, he added, “I didn’t get everything done that I wanted to get done as president — but I could say when I looked back at the end of eight years, ‘You know what, the country is better off now than it was when I took office.’”

Obama acknowledged that government is “not perfect” and “doesn’t solve every problem,” and admitted that even today he finds himself frustrated with the lack of racial and gender equity or with Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacist groups.

“I get it,” he said. “But you know what, when I get into one of those moods, I just remind myself that when we work together, when we put in a little bit of effort, things may not get perfect but they do get better.”

Obama made a similar plea earlier this summer when the country was convulsing with unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He disputed the notion that “voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time” and asserted that “real change” on racial injustice starts in the voting booth.

But with the election less than 24 hours away Obama reprised that message in Atlanta.

“The fact that we don’t get 100 percent of what we want is not good enough reason not to vote,” he contended.

Lewis, he argued, “ran for office all those years and kept protesting even while he was in office because he understood they’re two sides of the same coin. It’s us acting on behalf of our highest aspirations even though we know we won’t get there.”

Obama continued, saying that voting is not about “making things perfect, but making things better. Laying that path, brick by brick, to a better future.”

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