Not all the attendees of the NAACP’s national conference, held at the Hilton Hotel in midtown this week, got into the third floor ballroom to hear President Barack Obama’s highly anticipated speech last night.
By the northeast entrance of the Hilton’s lobby, across from a sign directing participants of the Korea Global Healthcare Conference to the hotel’s second floor, a crowd gathered in front of a flat screen television sponsored by AT&T and promoting NAACP Webcast.com (“Text, Call or Tweet Your Friends”).
They watched attentively as the panning camera focused on the back of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s graying, anvil-headed hair as he ate dinner. The crowd demonstrated considerably more animation a few minutes later, when the screen showed Beyoncé Knowles singing “Halo,” though their excitement ended abruptly when the camera again showed the guests in the ballroom quietly eating, as it turned out Knowles’ performance was stock footage from February’s NAACP Image Awards. Then they watched an NAACP official at the podium asking all the trustees to meet him outside in the hall.
“It must mean he’s ready to come in,” said one member of the crowd.
As the camera lingered on police commissioner Ray Kelly chatting at table 44, Wildon Richardson, a self-employed man of 50 who held a copy of the Amsterdam News (“Hero Shot in Cross Fire”) and wore a pin of Michael Jackson (in red military jacket with epaulettes) on his right shoulder and one of Michael Jackson (in “Smooth Criminal” gangster hat and jacket) on his left shoulder, started talking with an older man wearing a FUBU baseball cap.
“Christopher Columbus discovered America? How can you discover a place that is already inhabited?” said Richardson.
“You know about Halifax, Nova Scotia,” said the man in the FUBU cap. “They got a black culture seminar up there man that will blow your mind.”
All of a sudden, young women started squealing and running past the Hilton’s Bridges Bar on the hotel’s 54th Street side to a side entrance.
“Is it the president?” one woman asked one of the Bridges Bar’s waiters.
“That wasn’t the president. That was Puff Daddy,” the waiter, a middle-aged Asian man, said, as the girls and some more mature women screamed, “Puff Daddy just passed me by!” and “P-Diddy, that’s P-Diddy!”
On the large screen television fixed to the wall of Bridges Bar, people watched the entertainer, dressed in a tuxedo, as he made the rounds inside the ballroom two floors above them, shaking hands with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and posing for cell phone pictures.
At 6:45, the patrons of the Bridges Bar, wearing their green NAACP conference credentials and sipping cocktails, watched the television as Prince walked onto the stage.
“Oh, no!” screamed one woman holding an appletini. “Prince is in the house!”
Prince, who paid tribute to “the true God Jahova,” actually wasn’t in the house either. His performance was stock footage too.
After the Prince clip, the live feed to the ballroom came back on the screen, and showed two men bringing out the presidential podium. The patrons of Bridges applauded. David Myrick, a community activist from New York, and his party ordered another round of white russians and brandy and settled in.
A few minutes later, the president was introduced. He came out in a red tie, white shirt and dark suit. Bridges erupted with applause. Several women ran up and took pictures of the screen with their phones. Imanda Wilson, a 49-year-old from Marion, Illinois, stood up and waved at the screen.
“It’s just good to be among friends,” Obama said.
“Yeah!” the patrons of Bridges Bar hollered back.
The Bridges viewers listened intently as Obama delivered a passionate speech. They sat hushed when he spoke about slavery and lynchings, made “mmmm-hmmms” when he spoke about the “long day of doing someone else’s laundry, the long days of looking after someone else’s children” and were jubilant when he said the long civil rights journey had “led me to be here tonight as the 44th president of the United States of America.”
Some passages had special resonance for certain of the Bridges audience. When Obama said, “Make no mistake: the pain of discrimination is still felt in America,” and added that that was true for “Muslim Americans viewed with suspicion simply because they kneel down to pray to their God,” Al Mulla, a 55-year-old woman wearing a hijab and visiting New York from Kuwait City, put down her glass of water and clapped.
When he began a long portion of his speech calling for more emphasis on education and demanding greater responsibility on the parts of black children and parents when it came to studying to get ahead, saying, “You know what I’m talking about,” Wilson shouted back, “Yes we do!”
When Obama leaned down into the podium’s microphone, as he often does to punctuate his key points, and thundered, “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuse,” Richardson, the Michael Jackson fan who was now watching from a table in the bar, yelled, “No excuses! No excuses!”
And when Obama said, “We need to go back to the time, back to the day when we parents saw somebody, saw some kid fooling around and — it wasn’t your child, but they’ll whup you anyway,” Richardson laughed and said, “I remember that.”
The president concluded by saying, “One hundred years from now, on the 200th anniversary of the NAACP, let it be said that this generation did its part; that we too ran the race; that full of faith that our dark past has taught us, full of the hope that the present has brought us, we faced, in our lives and all across this nation, the rising sun of a new day begun. Thank you, God bless you. God bless the United States of America.”
With that, everyone in the Bridges Bar jumped out of their seats to applaud.
“God Bless you, God Bless the United States of America,” yelled Richardson.
Wilson, the woman from Illinois, tearfully hugged Bill Grunewald, a 51-year-old white lawyer from Medford, Wisconsin, who had watched the speech at the next table. Then she hugged his wife. Then his daughters.
A few minutes later, everyone in the bar crammed up against Bridges’ wall-length window to see the presidential motorcade drive past on 54th Street in an attempt to get a glimpse of the president. They did. Obama waved at them through the tinted glass of his stretched Cadillac and, euphorically, they all waved back.