ReadTheSpirit brings you the text of Michelle Obama’s address to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church Conference in Nashville, Tennesee, on June 28.
We are publishing her text because the First Lady talks about the importance of churches, throughout American history, in strengthening our communities. In the course of her talk, she includes John Lewis who is profiled in Daniel Buttry’s “Blessed Are the Peacemakers.”
There are lines in her talk that our readers might find valuable to quote in your own messages and newsletters. The text has been released into the public domain by the White House.
In her talk at the church’s General Conference, Michelle Obama said:
You all are part of a proud tradition, one that dates back to the founding of that first AME Church and the founding of this nation and has shaped its history every day since. You all know the story—how back in the late 1700s, a man named Richard Allen bought his freedom from slavery—became a minister, and eventually founded a Methodist church called Bethel Church—or “Mother Bethel” as we know it today. That first AME church was located in a blacksmith’s shop, and that first congregation had just a few dozen members.
But there’s a reason why one pastor called Bethel’s founding “a Liberty Bell for black folks.” There’s a reason why W.E.B. Dubois said that Bethel Church “belongs to the history of the nation rather than to any one city.”
You see, before long, that little church had grown to 1,000 members, and soon, AME Churches were cropping up all across this country. Over the years, these churches served as stops on the Underground Railroad. They founded universities that educated generations of black leaders. They hosted civil rights marches, meetings and rallies, even under the threat of being vandalized, bombed or burned to the ground. Icons like Frederick Douglas and Rosa Parks, leaders like Jim Clyburn, trailblazers like Oliver Brown of Brown v. Board of Education, Ernest Green of the Little Rock Nine—they all worshipped at AME churches.
So did many of the quiet heroes who never made the headlines: the maids walking home in Montgomery, the young people riding those buses in Jackson, the men and women who stood up and sat-in because they wanted something better for their children.
I know that I am here today because of those heroes. My husband is in the White House today because of them. Because of those heroes, today my daughters and all our children and grandchildren can grow up dreaming of being doctors and lawyers, CEOs and senators, and yes, maybe even the President of the United States of America.
‘You do the best you can … but somebody has to carry it on.’
That is the legacy of the AME church—and of African American churches and denominations across the country. But let’s be clear, a legacy is not an end unto itself. As another pioneering AME woman, Dr. Jamye Coleman Williams, once said, “You do the best you can and try to leave a legacy, but somebody has to carry it on.”
And that’s what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk about how we carry on the legacy that is our inheritance as Americans, as African Americans, and as members of the AME church. I want to talk about what we can learn from our history about the power of being an active, engaged citizen in our democracy.
Now, back when Frederick Douglas was still working on a plantation, back when Rosa Parks was still riding that segregated bus, the injustices we faced were written in big, bold letters on the face of our laws. And while we may have had our differences over strategy, the battles we needed to fight were very clear. We knew that to end slavery, we needed a proclamation from our President, an amendment to our Constitution. To end segregation, we needed the Supreme Court to overturn the lie of “separate but equal.” To reach the ballot box, we needed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
So yes, we moved forward and we won those battles, and we made progress that our parents and grandparents could never have imagined. But today, while there are no more “whites only” signs keeping us out, no one barring our children from the schoolhouse door, we know our journey is far from finished.
But in many ways, the path forward for this next generation is far less clear. I mean, what exactly do you do about children who are languishing in crumbling schools, graduating from high school unprepared for college or a job? And what about the 40 percent of black children who are overweight or obese, or the nearly one in two who are on track to develop diabetes in their lifetimes? What about all those kids growing up in neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe; kids who never have opportunities worthy of their promise? What court case do we bring on their behalf? What laws do we pass for them?
You see, today, the connection between our laws and our lives isn’t always as clear as it was 50 years or 150 years ago. And as a result, it’s sometimes easy to assume that the battles in our courts and legislatures have all been won. It’s tempting to turn our focus to what’s going on in our own lives and with our own families, and just leave it at that.
‘Change starts at home.’
And make no mistake about it, change absolutely starts at home. Change absolutely starts with each of us, as individuals, taking responsibility for ourselves and our families because we know that our kids won’t grow up healthy until our families start eating right and exercising more. That’s on us. We know that we won’t close that education gap until we turn off the TV, and supervise homework, attend those parent-teacher conferences, and serve as good role models for our own children. That’s on us.
But while we certainly need to start at home, we all know that we cannot stop there because the fact is that our laws still matter. Much like they did 50 years ago, or 150 years ago, our laws still shape so many aspects of our lives: Whether folks are paying their fair share of taxes, or not; whether we invest in roads and schools, and the jobs that come with them, or not; whether our sons and our daughters who wear our country’s uniform get the support and benefits they’ve earned, or not. You see, those decisions are made by the folks sitting in Congress and in our White House. They’re made by the folks in our state legislatures and city halls. And we all know who’s supposed to select those folks, don’t we? We know who’s supposed to tell those folks what to do, right? We are. That’s our job. That is our most fundamental right and our most solemn obligation—to cast our ballots and have our say in the laws that shape our lives.
Dr. King knew that. That’s why back in 1965, he came to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma and declared, “When we get the right to vote, we will send to the statehouse not just men who will stand in the doorways of our universities…but men who will uphold the cause of justice.”
‘John Lewis … faced down a row of billy-clubs’
John Lewis understood the importance of that right. That’s why, just months after Dr. King’s speech, he faced down a row of billy-clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, risking his life so that we could one day cast our ballots.
But today, how many folks do we know who act like that right doesn’t even matter? How many of us have asked someone whether they’re going to vote, and tell us, “No, I voted last time,” or “Is there really an election going on? Really?” Or, “Nah, nah, it’s not like my vote’s going to make a difference.” How many times have we heard that? After so many folks sacrificed so much so that we could make our voices heard, so many of us just can’t be bothered.
But let’s be very clear, while we’re tuning out and staying home on Election Day, other folks are tuning in. Other folks are taking politics very seriously. And they’re engaged on every level. They’re raising money. They’re making their voices hear—and their issues known—from City Hall to Washington, DC. And I know that in the face of all of that money and influence, it can start to feel like ordinary citizens just can’t get a seat at the table. And that can make you feel helpless and hopeless. It can make you feel or think that you’re powerless.
‘We are not helpless or hopeless.’
But I’m here today because that’s simply not true. We are not helpless or hopeless. Time and again, history has shown us that there is nothing more powerful than ordinary citizens coming together for a just cause. And that is particularly true of folks in the AME church. And I’m not just talking about the big speeches and protests that we all remember. I’m talking about everything that happens between the marches, when the speeches are over and the cameras were off. I’m talking about the thousands of hours that folks like Roy Wilkins and Daisy Bates spent strategizing in cramped offices late at night. I’m talking about the folks in Montgomery who organized carpools and gave thousands of rides to perfect strangers. I’m talking about the volunteers who set up drinking fountains and first aid stations on the Washington Mall and made 80,000 bags of lunches for folks who marched on that August day. I’m talking about the tireless, the thankless, relentless work of making change: the phone-calling, letter-writing, door-knocking, meeting-planning kind of work. That is the real work of democracy—what happens during those quiet moments between the marches.
It’s kind of like church. Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon and good music and a good meal. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well—especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives.
We see that in the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. We know that. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day. He was out there spreading a message of grace and redemption to the least, the last, and the lost. And our charge is to find Him everywhere, every day by how we live our lives.
That is how we practice our faith. You see, living out our eternal salvation is not a once-a-week kind of deal. And in a more literal sense, neither is citizenship. Democracy is also an everyday activity. And being an engaged citizen should once again be a daily part of our lives. That is how we carry on that precious legacy we’ve inherited—by recommitting ourselves to that day-to-day, vitally important work that has always paved the way for change in this country.
What does that mean? That means being informed. It means following the news, and learning about who’s representing us, and how our governments work. It means showing up to vote—and not just every four years, but every year in every election. It means engaging with the folks we elect, following how they vote and how they spend our hard-earned tax dollars. And if you don’t like what you see, then let them know, or better yet, run for a seat at the table yourself.
And I know I am preaching to the choir here. I know that many of you have been active and engaged for decades. And I’m here today to urge you to continue that work and bring others along with you. Because we know that the only way to be heard above all the noise is to lift our voices up together.
So I want you to talk to your friends and your family, your neighbors. Talk to them. Talk to folks in the beauty salons, the barbershops, the parking lot at church. Tell them what’s happening on the city council and out in Washington. Let them know. Find that nephew who has never voted—get him registered. Start an email list or a Facebook group. Send people articles about issues you care about, and then call them to make sure they’ve read them.
And to anyone who says that church is no place to talk about these issues, you tell them there is no place better—no place better. Because ultimately, these are not just political issues—they are moral issues. They’re issues that have to do with human dignity and human potential, and the future we want for our kids and our grandkids. And the work of inspiring and empowering folks, the work of lifting up families and communities—that has always been the work of the AME Church. That’s what you all do best.
Think about it for a minute. Folks just don’t turn to all of you in times of spiritual crises. They come to you with financial crises and health crises and family crises of all kinds. That’s why AME churches are taking on issues from HIV/AIDS to childhood obesity to financial literacy. Every day, you all are giving folks the tools they need to take control of their lives and get back on their feet.
‘Organize that food drive, pair it with a meeting at city hall’
And if you’re not already doing this, I’m here to ask you to take that work to the next level. So the next time you organize that food drive, pair it with a meeting at city hall and ask what they’re doing to fight hunger in your community. If you’ve got an exercise ministry or a health ministry, maybe they can work with your town council to clear out a walk-in trailer, clean up a local park. Keep on doing that great work with your youth groups, but start showing up at those school board meetings and make sure those kids are getting the education they deserve. Take it to the next level.
In the end, I think that Bishop McKenzie put it best when she said, “It’s a tragedy when you fail to climb the mountain of opportunity after your season of preparation.” She says, “It’s a tragedy when you fail to try to exercise the gifts that God has given you, even in the face of difficulty. It’s a tragedy.” And God has given us so many blessings and gifts, and such a long season of preparation. And after so many years of toil and struggle, it is time to climb that mountain of opportunity. It’s time. It is time.
And I know that mountain may seem high. I know there are days when you just want to come home and put up your feet, kick back with the kids. I know that sometimes the problems we face seem so entrenched, so overwhelming that solving them seems nearly impossible. But during those dark moments, I want you to remember that doing the impossible is the root of our faith. It is the history of our people, and the lifeblood of this nation.
Because if a young shepherd could defeat a giant, if a man could lead a band of former slaves against the most powerful city in the land until its walls tumbled down, if a simple fisherman could become the rock upon which Christ built his church—then surely, we can do our part to be more active citizens.
If Ernest Green could face down an angry mob to get an education, if Rosa Parks could sit unmoved on that bus, if Richard Allen could transform a blacksmith’s shop into a church that changed history, then surely we can get our communities more engaged in our democracy. If so many people could sacrifice so much for so long to leave this magnificent legacy for us, then surely we can find a way to carry it forward for our children and our grandchildren.
‘I want to know if my hair is like yours.’
And when you grow weary in this work—and you will—when you think about giving up—and you will—I want you to think about a photo that hangs today in the West Wing of the White House.
It is a picture of a young black family visiting the President in the Oval Office. The father was a member of the White House staff, and he brought his wife and two young sons to meet my husband. In the photo, Barack is bent over at the waist—way over. And one of the sons, a little boy just 5 years old, is reaching out his tiny hand to touch my husband’s head. And it turns out that upon meeting Barack, this little boy gazed up at him longingly and said, “I want to know if my hair is like yours.” And my husband replied, “Well, why don’t you touch it and see for yourself.” So he bent way over so the little boy could feel his hair, and after touching my husband’s head, the boy exclaimed, he said, “Yeah, it does feel the same.”
And every couple of weeks, the White House photographers change out all the photos that hang in the West Wing—except for that one. See, that one, and that one alone, has hung on that wall for more than three years.
So if you ever wonder whether change is possible in this country, I want you to think about that little black boy in the Oval Office of the White House touching the head of the first black President. And I want you to think about how children who see that photo today think nothing of it because that is all they’ve ever known, because they have grown up taking for granted that an African American can be President of the United States.
And I want you to think of the stories in the Bible about folks like Abel and Noah; folks like Abraham and Sarah, and the verse in Hebrews that says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised. They only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.” Through so many heartbreaks and trials, those who came before us kept the faith. They could only see that Promised Land from a distance, but they never let it out of their sight.
And today, if we’re once again willing to work for it, if we’re once again willing to sacrifice for it, then I know we can carry that legacy forward. I know we can meet our obligations to continue that struggle. I know we can continue the work of those heroes whose shoulders we all stand on. And I know we can finish the journey they started and finally fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our children.
Text courtesy of the White House Press Office.