WASHINGTON – President Obama met with civil rights leaders on Thursday to discuss issues such as criminal justice and building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
The list of invitees included representatives from the NAACP and the National Urban League. Obama told the group that he was meeting with young people who are making history.
Obama said that to see generations of people continuing the work on behalf of justice, equality and economic opportunity was encouraging.
He called the younger participants “some serious younger people. I told them they are much better organizers I was when I was their age,” the president said. “I am confident they will take America to new heights.”
The meeting, held before the annual White House Black History Month reception, was set up to discuss a range of issues including criminal justice reform, community relationships with law enforcement and Obama’s priorities in his final year in office, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Civil rights activists young and old were invited, including Campaign Zero co-founders DeRay Mckesson and Brittany Packnett from Ferguson, Mo.; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; NAACP President Cornell William Brooks; the Rev. Al Sharpton and National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump.
A representative of Black Lives Matter Chicago declined an invitation. In an article on Truthout.org, Aislinn Pulley wrote that she would not participate in what she called “basically a photo opportunity” for the president.
“I do not feel that a handshake with the president is the best way for me to honor Black History Month or the black freedom fighters whose labor laid the groundwork for the historic moment we are living in,” she wrote.
The White House described the gathering as the first of its kind because those invited represent different generations of civil rights leaders.
Obama said the group talked about passing criminal justice reform this year to break “the school-to-prison pipeline” and enhancing education opportunities to instead create a pipeline to colleges and jobs. “It has to start early,” Obama said.
Obama has defended the groups that sprung from high-profile incidents of police killings of unarmed black men. He said in October that those communities’ grievances must be taken seriously and pushed back on the notion that organizations like Black Lives Matter are anti-police.