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Obama speech marks unofficial countdown for black Americans

Associated Press logoAssociated Press 1/11/2017 By ERRIN HAINES WHACK, Associated Press
President Barack Obama speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) © The Associated Press President Barack Obama speaks at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

PHILADELPHIA — LaKeitha Carlos was at home in Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon and decided to check the flights to Chicago, just in case.

A last-minute ticket was only $194.

Carlos took a moment to reflect on how, eight years earlier, she had worked as an organizer in Atlanta to get Barack Obama elected president, marking her start in politics. The wife and mother only briefly considered her choice: Should she drop everything to see the president one last time?

Two hours later, she was on a plane, wearing an Obama T-shirt and overcome with emotion.

As Obama said goodbye and thanked supporters on Tuesday night in his adopted hometown of Chicago, the occasion marked the unofficial countdown to the end of his historic presidency. The first black president's words resonated across the country for many African-Americans finally able to bask in seeing a family that looked like them in the White House.

After eight years, the era comes to a close in 10 days.

The scene Tuesday was reminiscent of election night in 2008. Then, Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, greeted a cheering crowd in Grant Park in Chicago to claim victory at the end of a campaign run on hope and change. The Obamas were not yet in their 50s; their children, Malia and Sasha, were 10 and 7.

Tonight, he walked out alone. At times during the address, which lasted about an hour, there were shouts of "We love you!" from the crowd, who pleaded for four more years.

"I can't do that," Obama answered.

Tickets for Tuesday's once-in-a-lifetime speech were hard to come by. People waited for hours in the freezing cold Saturday to score seats to see Obama in person.

For Carlos, the nostalgia was powerful and her concern over an uncertain future strong.

"There were a few of us that believed that he could do it," she recalled ahead of the speech. "To see that come to fruition has been amazing. It's sad to be here tonight. In a way, it feels anticlimactic."

Others, like Peggy Montes, chose to stay home and watch.

Montes, founder of the Bronzeville Children's Museum, said the Democratic president's mark on her life was personal and professional. She recalled that as an Illinois state legislator Obama helped secure the state funding to start the museum, believed to be the first of its kind for blacks nationwide. Montes was invited to both of Obama's presidential inaugurations and attended.

The Obamas are now a focal point of an exhibit at the museum greeting visitors as they walk in the door.

Like many in Chicago, Montes said Tuesday's speech was bittersweet.

"I'm sad because he will be leaving, but I'm also grateful for the fact that he did touch our lives for such a short period of time," she said. "He came in when the people were in distress. He was able to lift them up."

Horace Small, executive director of the Boston-based anti-poverty group Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said Obama's election was a tremendous source of pride for everyone, especially poor and middle-class blacks. But Small said the middle-class blacks benefited more than those battling poverty because Obama didn't talk more about race and class.

"But poor blacks did benefit from the fact that there was a black man in the White House less than 100 years after we were hanging from trees," Small said.

Small said Obama failed to mobilize citizens to pursue policies that could have impacted poverty in black communities.

Amy Maldonado, an immigration lawyer based in East Lansing, Michigan, who voted for Obama twice, said she was extremely disappointed in Obama because of his deportation policies and his detention of Central American children. She said that Obama reacted too late to protect some immigrant college students and that activists were forced to sue his administration over a lack of legal representation of detained immigrants.

"I will not be sorry to see this president go," Maldonado said. "I have no love for this administration."

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, around three dozen emotional Democratic activists gathered to eat green chile stew and Native American Pueblo bread and watch Obama's farewell address. Next to the New Mexican food was a box of tissues.

"We're going to need them," New Mexico Democratic chair Debra Haaland said.

Minutes into his speech, some activists could be heard sniffling and seen wiping tears. They clapped when Obama mentioned the need to protect immigrants and fighting for economic equality.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and the nation's only Latina governor, said it was not her role to assess the presidency of Obama, who rarely visited the state with the country's largest percentage of Hispanic residents.

"I think that it's up to the American people and for history to decide on what impact his presidency has had on our country and the world," Martinez said.

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Associated Press writers Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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Errin Haines Whack covers urban affairs for The Associated Press.

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