Obama Believes Black Lives Matter, But He Didn't Say It At His Final State Of The Union

Despite the omission, some members of Congress said a direct reference wasn't necessary.
Pool via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Though he didn't mention it by name, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement was clear throughout President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Near the end of his speech, Obama crafted an analogy that borrowed a line from Martin Luther King Jr. about the power of "voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love." The president then tipped his hat to a number of key reforms and policies promoted by Black Lives Matter.

“I see it in the American who served his time -- and made bad mistakes -- and now is dreaming of starting over, and the business owner who gives him that second chance,” Obama said. “The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.”

The president also expressed his desire to push bipartisan criminal justice reform initiatives, to strengthen the economy so that it benefits all Americans and to “reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.”

But some criticized Obama for not mentioning Black Lives Matter by name.

While a number of black lawmakers noticed the president’s hesitance to actually say “black lives matter,” they told The Huffington Post that Obama did a decent job of highlighting the movement, and said it wasn’t necessary for him to name-check it.

“I did hear him talking about protesters fighting for justice and cops working and doing what’s right -- and that’s a contextual framework if people are looking for it,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.). “If one was looking for [a statement on Black Lives Matter] it was there.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who claims to be a strong supporter of the movement, said she believes the president is very familiar with Black Lives Matter, and that activists can take a great deal of credit for moving the criminal justice agenda forward.

“There is no way the president does not have a sense of the enormous impact that Black Lives Matter has had on the legislative agenda,” she said. Black Lives Matter "changed the attitudes and mindsets of people about police-community relations, gun violence and the crisis mode we need to be in to pass criminal justice reform.”

Jackson Lee continued, “Would it have been great for Black Lives Matter to have been mentioned? Absolutely. But I don’t think the lack of being mentioned is in any way diminishing the president’s knowledge, understanding and appreciation for the kind of engine they have been to move forward an agenda that has been dormant for many years.”

Earlier, Alicia Garza, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a State of the Union guest invited by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), told ThinkProgress that Obama should be willing to take a broader approach to addressing the movement.

As the movement evolves, it becomes even more important that President Obama not only speak to the issue of criminalization, which is important and disproportionately impacts black people, but that he also speak to what he plans to do to make black lives matter in every other aspect of our society,” she said.

While the movement coalesced around issues of police reform and other forms of systemic racism, it has since fought for wage and housing equality, closing the wealth gap, affordable college and voting rights -- all issues that Obama mentioned on Tuesday evening.

He may not have said it explicitly, but the vision Obama expressed in his remarks -- though not solely influenced by Black Lives Matter and indeed reflective of a brand of populism that has become increasingly mainstream in Democratic politics -- is one he shares with the movement.

And for Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Obama’s commitment to issues like criminal justice reform and addressing gun violence is proof that he believes black lives matter.

“He spoke to discrimination and bias. He spoke to opportunity for all. He spoke to the division that exists and how we need to come together and respect each other. So, people knew he was talking about equity and equality and opportunity,” Watson said. “He doesn’t have to state that black lives matter. He’s a black man, who happens to be the President of the United States of America.”

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